Scientist jailed for gene-editing babies is working back in a lab

Dr He Jianku (Picture: Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A Chinese scientist who was jailed for creating the world’s first genetically edited babies is now working on treating genetic diseases.

Dr He Jiankui announced he had resumed research on human embryo genome editing in an interview with Mainichi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, but said he will comply with the rules set – and has no more plans on creating more genome-edited babies.

Dr He said: ‘We will use discarded human embryos and comply with both domestic and international rules.’

He now aims to treat rare genetic diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and familial Alzheimer’s disease using genome editing in human embryos.

Back in 2018, Dr He announced the birth of the world’s first babies and was imprisoned as genome editing for clinical applications in humans is not allowed in China, and the authorities deemed his series of studies illegal.

He was fined 3 million yuan (about 47 million yen or $430,000 at the time) and sentenced to three years in jail. Dr He was released in 2022.

Chinese media reported that Dr He began modifying the genes of embryos during the in vitro fertilization process for eight couples.

Dr He used a toolknown as Crispr-Cas9 to stop the virus from being passed on (Picture: Getty)

In the couples, one partner was infected with HIV, so Dr He modified the genes using a tool known as Crispr-Cas9 to stop the virus from being passed on.

However, critics said this could lead to a demand for ‘designer babies’.

Crispr-Cas9 is a tool that makes precise edits in DNA, where scientists look for a DNA-cutting enzyme and a small tag which tells the enzyme where to cut.

The scientists edit this tag and can make precise cuts by targeting specific regions of DNA.

It can also be used to silence genes or switch them off.

At the international genetics conference, he revealed that he modified the genes of twin girls, nicknamed ‘Lulu’ and ‘Nana’, and later revealed that a third gene-edited girl had also been born out of these experiments.

According to Dr He, the twin girls are aged five and are attending kindergarten.

However, he admitted that his research was ‘too hasty’, but has always maintained that his work was for the benefit of society.’

He said: ‘The results of analysing [the children’s] entire gene sequences show that there were no modifications to the genes other than for the medical objective, providing evidence that genome editing was safe.

‘I’m proud to have helped families who wanted healthy children.’

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