Scientist who edited babies’ genes says he acted ‘too quickly’

The scientist at the heart of the scandal involving the world’s first gene-edited babies has said he moved “too quickly” by pressing ahead with the procedure.

He Jiankui sent shock waves across the world of science when he announced in 2018 that he had edited the genes of twin girls, Lulu and Nana, before birth. He was subsequently sacked by his university in Shenzhen, received a three-year prison sentence, and was broadly condemned for having gone ahead with the risky, ethically contentious and medically unjustified procedure with inadequate consent from the families involved.

Speaking to the Guardian in one of his first interviews since his public re-emergence last year, He said: “I’ve been thinking about what I’ve done in the past for a long time. To summarise it up in one sentence: I did it too quickly.”

However, he stopped short of expressing regret or apologising, saying “I need more time to think about that” and “that’s a complicated question”.

He declined to elaborate on what he believed ought to have been in place before proceeding with gene editing, but said he would give further details at an invited talk he is scheduled to give at the University of Oxford next month.

He studied physics in China before moving to the US to study for a PhD at Rice University and a post-doctorate in genome sequencing at Stanford University. He returned to China in 2012 to pursue Crispr-Cas9 gene-editing research, launching a variety of biotechnology business ventures.

Gene-edited cells were already beginning to be used in clinical treatments for adults. But genetically modifying embryos was – and is – far more ethically contentious, because changes are made to every cell in the body and are passed down to subsequent generations. Some question whether such a step could ever be medically justified.

Against this backdrop, He dropped the bombshell at an international conference in Hong Kong four years ago that he had modified two embryos before they were placed in their mother’s womb. It later emerged that a third gene-edited baby had been born.

The edit, of a gene called CCR5, targeted a pathway used by the HIV virus to enter cells, and was claimed to give the babies immunity to HIV.

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself. Veteran of a thousand psychic wars. I have seen the fnords. Deplatformed on Tumblr and Twitter.

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