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Chinese Scientist Who Claimed to Have Created the First Genetically Engineered Babies is Now Under Arrest

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SHENZHEN, CHINA - AUGUST 04: Biological researcher He Jiankui receives interview on August 4, 2016 in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province of China. Biological researcher He Jiankui claimed to have created the world's first gene-edited twin baby girls 'Lulu' and 'Nana'. Twin baby girls 'Lulu' and 'Nana' were said to possess genetic alterations that could protect them from HIV. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

According to a report in The New York Times, the Chinese scientist who shocked the world with claims of creating the first genetically engineered babies is now under house arrest in the Chinese city of Shenzhen.

The man, named 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 claimed to have used CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) to remove a gene which plays a role in enabling forms of the HIV virus to infect cells from the embryos of two twin girls born in November.

His work quickly received international condemnation especially from the international scientific community that almost immediately condemned him for using the technology on human embryos. And according to The New York Times, the Chinese government has since shut down He’s research.

Wave of International 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 that 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.”

Under House Arrest

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 on the campus of the university where he performed his research that’s typically reserved for visiting professors, as reported by Techcrunch

The whereabouts of the Southern University of Science and Technology professor unknown since a public appearance in late November where Dr. He defended his use of the CRISPR gene-editing technology. However, his identity was confirmed by his co-founder of a genomics startup, Vienomics, Liu Chaoyu

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 2nd 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.

According to the Times report, the university had advised its staff that the were prohibited from talking to the media about Dr. He’s research.

Credit: Jonathan Sheiber of  TechCrunch

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