the creator finally released from prison

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He Jiankui, the (notorious) Chinese biophysicist who pioneered the genetic engineering of viable human embryos in the world, has been released after three years in prison. The scientist was jailed in China in particular in 2019 after shocking the world by announcing that he had edited and fertilized the genomes of human embryos in vitro (IVF). His main goal was to empower babies to resist HIV, but his work sparked so much controversy that it cost him his career. Now at liberty and in touch with his scientific network (including some who wanted to commercialize the project), it is not yet known whether he intends to continue his research in China or in another country.

His release from prison was confirmed by his relatives, and Jiankui could even answer the phone during the day yesterday and said, ” It’s impractical to talk now according to an MIT Technology Review Report.

The researcher, who was then working at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, had used the CRISPR-Cas9 technique. It is a versatile and revolutionary genome editing technique used for the design of custom cell or animal models. This genetic manipulation is both technically and cost-effectively easy to apply and is widely used in the laboratory to modify viruses, isolated cells, experimental animals, etc.

But when it comes to human germline genes, the issue is more sensitive and very strict regulations apply. In fact, the human genome is so complex that it still holds many mysteries for scientists. Dealing with it then proves dangerous for the affected subject as well as for his offspring. Only a few researchers then dare to use CRISPR-Cas9 on humans.

Four years ago, He Jiankui and his team experimented with the CRISPR-Cas9 technique on IVF embryos, which were then implanted into a surrogate mother’s uterus. Twins, nicknamed Lulu and Nana, were born from this experience, along with another baby the following year. The existence of the project was revealed the day before an international summit on genome editing in Hong Kong in November 2018. According to an old MIT Technology Review report, the researcher had posted several videos on YouTube announcing the birth of twins.

The Chinese scientist, a former Rice University and Stanford student, appeared unaware of the dangers and sensitivity of his project as he hoped to win a Nobel prize by finding the “miracle solution” to eradicating AIDS. However, his reckless use of gene-editing technology in assisted reproductive medicine allegedly violated medical ethics and safety codes with intent. His acquaintances even called him idealistic and naive.

Serious scientific errors

The paper, which details He Jiankui’s research, has never been published in any scientific journal. According to some experts, this is already evidence of an experiment gone wrong. But for those who read the draft, the article is riddled with serious and blatant scientific errors. ” When I first had the opportunity to look through an entire manuscript of He last November, I immediately realized that there were problems explained in 2019 Kiran Musunuru, professor of cardiovascular medicine and genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The CRISPR generationa book about the history of gene editing and genetically engineered twin sisters.

Among the mistakes made, the endemic “mosaicism” was one of the most serious. This phenomenon occurs in particular when the modifications made to the genes of the embryos do not produce homogeneous effects. Evidence of this mosaic was found in the embryonic stages of Lulu and Nana, and in the placenta that nursed Lulu. At birth, therefore, some parts of the child’s genome may contain the desired modifications, while others may not and are therefore vulnerable.

It is also possible that some areas were inadvertently altered because He Jiankui only checked the genetic material of a few embryonic cells out of the 200 to 300 available. Experts have even stated that the alleged modifications have no medical benefit and, on the contrary, could provoke errors in the genome of babies. Growing up, they would have been at risk of developing serious illnesses that would be passed from generation to generation.

Also, the Shenzhen researcher wouldn’t have been entirely transparent, having exhibited (vaguely) 60 slides in just 20 minutes during the Hong Kong summit. The conditions of his experiments remain largely mysterious.

What happened to the babies?

The future of the three children, whose identities are confidential, is very uncertain. The parents agreed to the experiment in particular because the fathers were all HIV positive and otherwise would not have access to IVF in China. After He Jiankui’s arrest, bioethicists petitioned the Chinese government to set up a research program to monitor children’s health.

But according to Eben Kirksey, associate professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute (and author of The Mutant Project, a book about Chinese twin sisters), the study participants were not treated fairly. Although health insurance was promised for their children, claims were never made and medical bills remain unpaid.

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