The Chinese scientist who shocked the world with claims of creating the first genetically engineered babies is being detained in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, according to a report in The New York Times.
He Jiankui, a Chinese research scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology and an entrepreneur involved in two Chinese biotech startups, made headlines and generated controversy when he announced he had used CRISPR to remove from the embryos of two twin girls born in November a gene which plays a role in enabling forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.
The international scientific community almost immediately condemned He for using the technology on human embryos and the Chinese government shut down He’s research almost immediately, according to The New York Times.
Now it appears that the government has also put He and his family under a form of house arrest.
He is apparently under the supervision of armed guards and is staying at a housing facility typically reserved for visiting professors on the campus of the university where he performed his research.
Hotel staff and Liu Chaoyu, the co-founder alongside Dr. He of a genomics startup, Vienomics, confirmed the identity of the professor, whose whereabouts had been unknown since a public appearance in late November, where Dr. He defended his use of the CRISPR gene-editing technology.
According to the Times report, Dr. He is allowed to make phone calls and send emails. Executives at Vienomics have spoken to the scientist about company matters but could not confirm his whereabouts when questioned by reporters from the Times.
The Southern University of Science and Technology, based in Shenzhen, has denied the reporting around Dr. He’s whereabouts and fate, telling the Times, “Right now nobody’s information is accurate, only the official channels are.” Meanwhile, the official channels are staying silent.
Reporters found security personnel blocking access to the residence where Dr. He is reportedly staying and others denying access to the former offices Dr. He used to conduct his research. The scientist’s name and biography remains on a board listing staff in the university’s biology department.
He first announced the results of his experiments at the Second International Summit On Human Genome Editing, a Summit convened to determine how and under what conditions it would be acceptable to create genetically engineered children.
Almost immediately after reporting his findings, He was met with condemnation. According to a report on National Public Radio, David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist (and co-chair of the conference) said, “I don’t think it has been a transparent process,” Baltimore said. “We’ve only found out about it after it’s happened and the children are born. I personally don’t think it was medically necessary… I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community because of a lack of transparency,” he added.
Another scientist who organized the conference, University of Wisconsin Bioethicist Alta Charo, said the treatments were performed under false pretenses.
“The patients were given a consent form that falsely stated this was an AIDS vaccine trial and which conflated research with therapy by claiming they were ‘likely’ to benefit,” Charo said. “In fact, there is not only very little chance these babies would be in need of a benefit, given their low risk, but there is no way to evaluate if this indeed conferred any benefit.”
According to the Times report, the university had advised its staff that they are prohibited from talking to the media about Dr. He’s research.