Chinese scandal researcher
Update after four years – this is how the “Gentech Babies” are doing today
Four years ago, He Jiankui shook the world when he announced the world’s first birth of genetically modified babies. Now the researcher, also known as the baby cloner, has given an update.
Fee Anabelle Riebeling
After a three-year break, He Jankui is back. The genetically engineered babies he created about three years ago are doing well.
Today, the three children led a “normal, peaceful and undisturbed life”. That is her wish and it must be respected. We want to continue to do everything we can to ensure that the children are doing well.
In November 2018, the Chinese researcher caused a scandal by announcing the birth of the world’s first GM baby, which landed him in prison for three years.
At the time, He Jiankui explained that he used Crispr/Cas9 gene scissors to manipulate embryos in such a way that the children born from them were immune to HIV.
Only later did it become known that the supposed success was not at all. As experts wrote in the “MIT Technology Review” at the time, Jiankui “did not really reproduce the desired mutation. Rather, he created new mutations that might or might not lead to HIV resistance.”
Even without knowing about the false testimony, many experts did not share He Jiankui’s joy. They spoke of “GAU”, “madness”, “irresponsible human experiments” or that “Pandora’s box” had been opened.
imago images/ZUMA Wire
Among other things, He Jiankui’s opaque and hasty approach was criticized. He is said to have simply ignored decades of security research. “Although the technology is mature, nobody knows what long-term consequences it will have on human embryos,” explained Martin Jinek from the University of Zurich at the time.
The fact that neither He Jiankui’s university nor the hospital involved knew about the experiments was also criticized. Likewise, that the researcher had not obtained any permits. In 2019, he was sentenced in Shenzhen to three years in prison and a fine of around CHF 380,000 for unethical and unauthorized medical research.
imago images/Kyodo News
After his release from prison, He Jiankui is doing research again: he has set up a new laboratory in Beijing to work on affordable gene therapies for rare genetic diseases. In addition, he is to prepare the opening of a non-profit research organization. “I have a long-term vision, which is that each of us should be free from hereditary diseases.”
The creator of what he claims to be the world’s first genetically engineered babies has spoken out after a long time.
The children created using the Crispr/Cas9 gene scissors are doing well, says He Jiankui.
The announcement of the birth of the children triggered criticism worldwide in 2018 and the researcher even had to go to prison as a result.
Today, He Jiankui is doing research again.
The message of Birth of the world’s first genetically modified babies spread like wildfire in November 2018: “Two beautiful little Chinese girls named Lulu and Nana were born a few weeks ago crying and as healthy as any other baby,” said He Jiankui from the University of Schenzen at the time in a video distributed on YouTube ( see video). Shortly thereafter he had to stop his work.
Nevertheless, two months later he announced that another designer baby is on the way. At the end of 2019 it became known that the creator of the “gene babies” sentenced to three years imprisonment and a fine had been – and that baby number three had meanwhile also seen the light of day. Now He Jiankui is giving an update for the first time.
Here He Jiankui announced his supposed scientific breakthrough: The babies were conceived by artificial insemination. Immediately after the father’s sperm reached the eggs, an embryologist went to work and used gene scissors to remove “the molecular portal through which the HI virus can infect people”.
Video: Tamedia/Youtube/ The He Lab
“Children’s happiness comes first”
The controversial scientist told the Hong Kong newspaper “South China Morning Post” that the children he created would lead “normal, peaceful and undisturbed lives” today. That is her wish and it must be respected. “The happiness of the children and their families comes first.”
When asked if he was worried about the children’s future, He Jiankui said he had the same expectations and concerns as any father about his children’s future, according to the newspaper. But we want to do everything we can to ensure that the children are happy. He and his team promised the parents that they would consistently monitor the children’s health. “After the age of 18, children will decide whether they want to seek medical follow-up care for their individual needs.”
Attempts have already been made to take out additional health insurance for the children, in addition to the public one. But no insurance wanted to get involved. Now it is planned to set up a charitable foundation to collect money so that the health costs for the three children are covered for all time.
Two big criticisms
He Jiankui was criticized for two main reasons – because of the method he chose (see box), but also because he “massively lied” in his statements about the success of the experiment has. He and his team claimed to have “successfully” edited the twin girls’ genes to protect them from contracting HIV.
However, they could not prove the claim, as external experts wrote in the “MIT Technology Review” at the time: He Jiankui “did not really reproduce the desired mutation. Rather, he created new mutations that might or might not lead to HIV resistance.” In other words, the gene mutation created is similar to, but not identical to, the one that creates immunity to HIV.
The announcement of He Jiankui in 2018 caused a global outcry. Critics spoke of “GAU”, “madness”, “irresponsible human experiments” or that “Pandora’s box” had been opened. The following points were criticized, among others:
Apparently, neither He Jiankui’s university nor the hospital involved knew about his experiments.
There was no approval from the authorities.
He Jiankui is said to have “simply ignored decades of security research”. “Although the technology is mature, nobody knows what long-term consequences it will have on human embryos,” explained Martin Jinek from the University of Zurich at the time.
According to Nikola Biller-Andorno, head of the Institute for Biomedical Ethics and Medical History at the University of Zurich, He Jiankui has crossed a delicate line: “The DNA of the twins was changed in such a way that the modifications – intentional and possibly unintentional – were passed on to the next generation can be inherited – with unclear consequences.”
The procedure is considered unethical, two children were instrumentalized without being asked.
Non-transparent procedure: Nobody knows how the families were recruited.
Here you will find a more detailed explanation for why the experiments of the “gene baby creator” were so reprehensible.
He Jiankui continues to investigate
According to the South China Morning Post, He Jiankui has set up a new laboratory in Beijing to work on affordable gene therapies for rare genetic diseases like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a deadly disease that primarily affects teenage boys and young men regards. In addition, he is to prepare the opening of a non-profit research organization. “I have a long-term vision, which is that each of us should be free from hereditary diseases.”
A visit to the University of Oxford is also planned for March 2023, where he will speak about the use of Crispr gene editing technology in reproductive medicine, the researcher said. The date is not publicly advertised. 20 minutes asked the British university. However, the answer is still pending. Would he act like he did in 2018 again? “The question is too complex and I don’t have an answer to it yet,” he was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post. But he certainly “acted too quickly”. Since then he has changed a lot and learned a lot.
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