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After three years in prison, ‘CRISPR babies’ scientist is attempting a comeback

He Jiankui speaks during a conference in Hong Kong in November 2018 where he claimed to have made the world's first gene-edited babies.

He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysicist who created the first gene-edited children, had been quiet since completing a three-year prison sentence in April, leaving many to wonder whether he had plans to return to scientific research. Earlier this month, we got his answer.

On Nov. 9, He posted photos to Twitter of himself sitting at a computer in a white office. “Today I moved in my new office in Beijing,” he wrote. “This is the first day for Jiankui He Lab.”

Videos and messages posted to He’s Weibo account indicate that it is located in the Daxing district of Beijing, and that it will be focused on developing affordable gene therapies. In another post on the Chinese social media app, he wrote that the first rare disease he’d like to tackle is Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

He did not respond to STAT’s questions, but in an email said “the Jiankui He Lab is a not-for-profit medical research institute dedicated to rare disease gene therapy.”

The flurry of activity on both social media platforms makes it clear that He is eager to re-enter public life and has every intention of rejoining the race toward scientific progress — despite the outpouring of condemnation from scientists around the world in 2018 when he announced that he’d altered the genetic makeup of IVF embryos in an attempt to make them resistant to HIV and started pregnancies with them, leading to the birth of twin “CRISPR babies,” and later a third child. It also reveals he started his comeback campaign less than six weeks after finishing his sentence for violating Chinese regulations and medical ethics.

On Nov. 4, He posted a letter written to him by the Global Observatory for Genome Editing, a collection of bioethicists, science historians, and other academics that fosters cross-community conversations about emerging biotechnologies, including CRISPR gene editing, with the capacity to transform what it means to be human. Signed by the observatory’s director, Sheila Jasanoff, and co-directors Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha, it was an invitation to attend an in-person meeting in Cambridge, Mass., on May 14, 2022 and tell his side of the story about how the human genome-editing project came about.

After STAT reached out for comment, the observatory released a statement confirming that it hosted a closed-door meeting in May that He attended via Zoom to respond to questions about the circumstances that led up to the controversial experiments and He’s motivations in conducting them.

“Our purpose was not to find fault, denounce, or embarrass,” the statement said. “In keeping with the mission of the Observatory, we aimed rather to step back in a spirit of humility and to reflect, learn, and move forward in more productive and enlightened directions.”

In an interview, Hurlbut, a biomedical historian at Arizona State University, clarified that the meeting provided an opportunity for participants — whom he described as people playing important roles in the governance of genome editing — to directly ask questions of the designer of the disastrous “CRISPR babies” experiment, not, as He described it in his posts, as an “online lecture.”

Hurlbut declined to discuss the specific questions asked and answers given, citing the Chatham House rules under which the meeting was conducted, saying only that it “unfolded as we had hoped in a professional and productive way.”

But Hurlbut, who interviewed He extensively before he was taken into Chinese government custody at the end of January 2019, told STAT that He’s new forays into gene therapy, and the scientific and regulatory environments in which they’re unfolding, should give us all pause.

“My clear sense of what motivated him then was a desire to beat the vanguard of an emerging scientific and technological domain that many of his colleagues had said was the future; it was not to be a rogue but to be the head of the pack,” Hurlbut said. ”He has clearly shifted away from his previous technological focus. But it’s not clear that he’s shifted away from that ethos. Once again he is wanting to be an innovator striking out into new territory. He just thinks he judged wrong about the last one and he’ll judge right about this one.”

The Cambridge meeting may have been the first time since his release from prison that He has shown his face, albeit virtually, in a room full of international researchers. But it seems to have been just the beginning of the publicity tour now underway.

On Sunday, He posted a photo of St. Cross College at the University of Oxford, along with the message that he had accepted an invitation to speak at an event there, titled “Good Genes: CRISPR-Cas9 in Reproductive Medicine.”

Eben Kirksey, an associate professor of anthropology at Oxford who has written a book about the CRISPR baby experiments, confirmed to STAT that he invited He to Oxford for a speaking event in the spring.

In a statement, Kirksey said he’d been given approval from the Research Ethics Committee at Oxford to engage in a series of oral history interviews with He, building on his book, which delved into the circumstances surrounding the birth of the twin girls, Lulu and Nana, in 2018.

“In my interviews we will be engaging with fundamental questions about science, health, and social justice: Does gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9 have a future in reproductive medicine? What is at stake as biological scientists remake the facts of life itself? Can society shape future gene editing research agendas to promote an ethical and fair society?” the statement said.

Details are still being finalized, and it’s unclear whether or not the meeting will be open to the public.