Monday, May 16, 2022

The creator of the CRISPR Babies has been released from a Chinese prison

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His team at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen used CRISPR, the versatile genetic engineering tool, to alter the girls’ DNA so that they would be resistant to HIV infection.

It is unclear whether he has plans to return to scientific research in China or another country. People who know him have described the biophysicist, who was trained at Rice University and Stanford, as idealistic, naive and ambitious.

Before his world collapsed around him, he believed he had created a new way to “get the HIV epidemic under control” that would qualify for a Nobel Prize.

The existence of the CRISPR baby project was discovered by MIT Technology Review on the eve of an international summit on genome editing in Hong Kong, held in November 2018. Following our report, he immediately posted several videos on YouTube detailing the birth of the twins. who he named Lula and Nana.

The experiment was met with fierce condemnation around the world and in China. Scientists said the use of genome editing served little medical purpose and could have introduced errors into the girls’ genome.

His description of the experiments has never been published by a scientific journal. MIT Technology Review later obtained draft copies of its paper, which one expert said was riddled with “outrageous scientific and ethical errors.”

The investigator spent only about three years in the Chinese prison system, including a period in detention before being convicted. Since his release, he has been in contact with members of his scientific network in China and abroad.

While responsibility for the experiment rested with He and other Chinese team members, other scientists should know about and encourage the project. These include Michael Deem, a former Rice University professor who took part in the experiment, and John Zhang, head of a large IVF clinic in New York that had plans to commercialize the technology.

Deem left his post at Rice in 2020, but the university has never released any findings or explanations about her involvement in making the babies. Deem’s LinkedIn profile now lists a job at an energy consultancy that he started.

“It is extraordinary and unusual that [He Jiankui] and some of his colleagues were imprisoned for this experiment,” said Eben Kirksey, an associate professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, in Australia, and the author of The Mutant Project, a book about He’s experiment with interviews with some participants. “At the same time, many of [his] international employees – such as Michael Deem and John Zhang – were never sanctioned or formally censored for involvement.”

“In many ways justice has not been served,” Kirksey says.

He paid a high price. He was fired from his college job, separated from his wife and young children, and spent time in a prison far from his hometown in Shenzhen.

His sentence appears to have delayed further experiments with gene editing to make babies, especially in China. In the US, the procedure is actually prohibited by a law that prohibits the Food and Drug Administration from approving such an investigation.

There is also the issue of justice for the three children born as a result of the experiment, whose identities are not public. Their parents agreed to the experiment because the fathers of all the children had HIV and otherwise would not have had access to IVF under Chinese rules.

According to a news report in Nature, two senior Chinese bioethicists appealed to the Chinese government in February set up a research program to monitor the health of the CRISPR children† They classified the children as a “vulnerable group” and called for genetic analysis to determine whether their bodies contain genetic errors that they could pass on to future generations.

Kirksey says the study participants were not treated fairly. They were promised health insurance for their children, but he says amid the controversy, “the insurance plans weren’t issued and medical bills went unpaid.”

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