He Jiankui, the disgraced Chinese scientist who created the world’s first genetically-engineered babies, reportedly had plans to turn his knowledge and skills into a lucrative enterprise.
The news comes from an investigative report from Science Magazine, the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which found that He hoped to gene-edit babies for the wealthy.
According to the report, He managed to meet potential investors for his business, which aimed to design babies resistant to HIV, cardiovascular disease and other medical anomalies.
The designer baby clinic could have been in China or Thailand, the latter being considered for its “friendlier regulatory climate.”
For one, He communicated with John Zhang, founder of the New Hope Fertility Center in New York. Zhang’s work involves the so-called “three-parent baby” technique, in which DNA from an older woman’s egg is transferred into a younger woman’s.
Because the procedure is banned in the U.S., Zhang has performed it in other countries such as Mexico and Ukraine. His business now spans four continents.
“Everything we do is a step toward designer babies,” he told MIT Technology Review in 2017. “With nuclear transfer and gene editing together, you can really do anything you want.”
He and Zhang, who began discussions in August 2018, lost touch since the former lit controversy.
“After all this happened, of course we’re not going to have any further collaboration,” Zhang told Science Magazine.
He’s plans apparently went down the drain from late November when he announced that he had helped a volunteer couple give birth to twin girls immune to HIV. The associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) was immediately suspended without pay until January 2021.
He then faced a massive international backlash, with more than 120 scientists from leading universities in China, Singapore and the U.S. signing a joint statement to condemn his research. The outcry turned worse when He revealed a second pregnancy at a local summit.