The Chinese scientist who shocked the world in November by announcing that twin girls had been born from embryos that he had created using genome editing has told two Western colleagues that, contrary to a flurry of reports that he is under house arrest and possibly even facing the death penalty, he is “actually doing quite well here.”
In an email and a phone conversation, He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology told the two scientists, who attended the “CRISPR babies” announcement at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he is able to read Western news reports about himself, including some earlier this week that he might be facing the death penalty for his work and that he is under armed guard and house arrest.
In fact, He told Stanford University neuroscientist and bioethicist Dr. William Hurlbut, he is staying in a university apartment in the city of Shenzhen “by mutual agreement” but is free to leave the apartment: He visits the gym in the building and takes walks outside, and his wife comes and goes for grocery runs and other errands.
“I didn’t pick up any anxiety from JK about what’s going on,” said Hurlbut, using He’s nickname. “He didn’t convey to me that he finds the guards a constraining force at all, but instead feels they are protecting him.” He, Hurlbut said, has received a small number of hostile, even threatening emails about his experiment and is therefore concerned about “venturing out and being vulnerable.”
Hurlbut said He has expressed second thoughts on whether the CCR5 gene was an appropriate target for the first genome-edited embryos to be born. Some mutations to that gene protect against infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Many, but far from all, scientists argue that embryo editing is justified only if it addresses a severe medical need, such as repairing genes that cause devastating, incurable inherited disorders including Huntington’s or Tay-Sachs, not a disease that is preventable and treatable by simpler means, such as HIV/AIDS.
He is being investigated by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology for possible violations of laws prohibiting certain experiments on human embryos. It is not clear whether the country’s “Ethical Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” passed in 2003, apply to He’s experiment, which used CRISPR-Cas9 in human IVF embryos to alter a gene to protect against HIV infection. The guidelines prohibit reproductive cloning, but the two girls born from the edited embryos are simply test-tube babies, though with genomes altered before they were implanted in their mother’s uterus.
He has told Hurlbut and others that he was aware of the guidelines and does not believe they apply to his experiment.
Colleagues who have spoken to He said they hear his two young children in the background, and that the fencing on the apartment’s balcony — which some news reports said were meant to keep He from fleeing — are simply the usual precautions that parents who have toddlers (He’s oldest is 2 1/2) and live on upper stories take.
He spends his days reading, communicating with colleagues, and thinking about the bombshell he dropped on the world, including defending himself against some of the specific scientific criticisms of the experiment, say those who have heard from him.
He told Robin Lovell-Badge of London’s Francis Crick Institute, a summit organizer and one of the scientists who questioned He onstage after his summit presentation, that contrary to the charge that people with an HIV-protecting mutation like the one he tried to make in the embryos are more vulnerable to influenza, research on that has been ambiguous.
He also responded to criticism that the changes he made in the CCR5 gene created nothing like the HIV-protective form naturally found in some people of European descent. A different mutation, found in a small fraction of Chinese and Japanese, also protects against HIV, he told Lovell-Badge, suggesting that the chaotic edits he made in the embryos that developed into the girls He calls “Lulu” and “Nana” might also be protective.
Many CRISPR experts have criticized He for not determining the effects of those edits before creating pregnancies, such as by testing the DNA changes in lab animals.
Senior Writer, Science and Discovery
Sharon covers science and discovery.