The story of He Jiankui, a scientist from China who specializes in genetic editing, just keeps getting stranger. Last week, He announced that his lab had created the first-ever genetically altered human babies. Two days later, he publicly defended his work against worldwide critics.
And now? He seems to have disappeared
After He’s announcement, Chinese authorities publicly called his experiments “extremely abominable in nature” and immediately moved to investigate.
The president of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, where He worked until recently, has been played under house arrest. It entirely possible that He is also under arrest at this time. But we won’t know until the Chinese government confirms anything.
He Jiankui reportedly used CRISPR, a genetic modification tool, to alter the genome of twin babies named Lulu and Nana. When he announced the result of his experiment at a scientific summit in Hong Kong–and revealed that at least one more genetically-modified pregnancy is underway–the backlash was immediate and intense.
One of the scientists who created CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, claimed to be “horrified” by what He had done. Other prominent figures in the scientific community, such as NIH director Francis Collins, decried the experiment as “profoundly disturbing.”
Unsettling Details and Lingering Questions
According to many experts in the field, He made several major errors and committed multiple ethical missteps in his experiment.
Lulu and Nana’s father is HIV-positive, and He modified the part of their genetic code that is thought to be able to prevent an HIV infection. However, the CCR5 gene isn’t completely effective in blocking HIV, and in deactivating it, He might have made the twins more vulnerable to West Nile Virus and influenza.
It’s also not clear that Lulu and Nana’s parents knew exactly what they were signing up for. They may not have been able to give informed consent to being the parents of the world’s first genetically edited babies.
With He Jiankui missing and the experiment itself shrouded in secrecy, we’re left with more questions than answers.