Scientist who created world’s first genetically modified human babies released from Chinese prison

Image: The He Lab
  • Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui made headlines in 2018 after announcing the birth of the world’s first genetically-engineered babies.
  • Modified CCR5 genes supposedly made the pair of twins immune to HIV, but editing errors resulted in them carrying an entirely new version of the genes.
  • He was sentenced to three years in prison in January 2020 after being convicted of deliberately violating national regulations in pursuit of “personal fame and gain.”
  • People familiar with He’s case reportedly confirmed his release, but the scientist declined to comment after being contacted.
  • Two Chinese bioethicists have called on the government to create a research center that will monitor the genetically modified children’s wellbeing.

A Chinese biophysicist globally condemned for “playing God” after creating the world’s first genetically engineered babies in 2018 has reportedly been released from prison.

He Jiankui, who previously worked as an associate professor of biology at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen, was sentenced to three years behind bars in January 2020 for deliberately violating national biomedical regulations in pursuit of “personal fame and gain.”

Along with two other collaborators, He forged ethical review materials and misled trial participants to implant genetically-engineered embryos in women, which led to the birth of twin designer babies in 2018 and another child in 2019.

People familiar with the situation confirmed He’s release, according to MIT Technology Review, but the scientist reportedly said, “It’s not convenient to talk right now,” after being contacted.

He and his team utilized CRISPR, a gene-editing tool that has seen rapid development in the last several years with wide-reaching applications. The female twins, announced in November 2018 — Lulu and Nana — were born with altered copies of a rare gene called CCR5, which supposedly made them immune to HIV.

He sought to equip Lulu and Nana with a version of CCR5 that is naturally present in about 1% of Northern Europeans. East Asians typically carry a different type.

As a result of editing errors, however, the twins, who were each supposed to have a pair of the modified CCR5 from each parent — instead ended up with an entirely new version of the genes. One of Lulu’s copies had 15 base pairs deleted, while the other remained unaltered. Meanwhile, Nana has an extra pair in one copy, while four were deleted from the other.

How the new genes will affect Lulu and Nana can only be determined as they progress through life. 

“We’ve never seen these CCR5 proteins before and we don’t know their function in the context of a human being,” Krishanu Saha, a bioengineer at University of Wisconsin-Madison, told BBC Future last year.

Two Chinese bioethicists urged the government in February to create a research center that will ensure the wellbeing of the designer babies. As of this writing, the whereabouts of the third CRISPR child remains unknown.

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