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He Jiankui told the Guardian in 2023 that he had acted ‘too quickly’ by pressing ahead with modifying the DNA of embryos, which led to the birth of genetically modified twins, but stopped short of voicing regret or apologising. Photograph: SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Scientist who gene-edited babies is back in lab and ‘proud’ of past work despite jailing

China’s He Jiankui, who used Crispr to edit genome, says he is working on genetic diseases and suggests human embryo gene editing will one day be accepted

A Chinese scientist who was imprisoned for his role in creating the world’s first genetically edited babies says he has returned to his laboratory to work on the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other genetic diseases.

In an interview with a Japanese newspaper, He Jiankui said he had resumed research on human embryo genome editing, despite the controversy over the ethics of artificially rewriting genes, which some critics predicted would lead to demand for “designer babies”.

“We will use discarded human embryos and comply with both domestic and international rules,” He told the Mainichi Shimbun, adding that he had no plans to produce more genome-edited babies. Previously, He had used a tool known as Crispr-Cas9 to rewrite DNA in embryos.

In 2019 a court in China sentenced He to three years in prison for violating medical regulations after he claimed the previous year that he had created genetically modified twin sisters, Lulu and Nana, before birth.

His experiments sent shockwaves through the medical and scientific world. He was widely condemned for having gone ahead with the risky, ethically contentious and medically unjustified procedure with inadequate consent from the families involved.

The court found that He had forged documents from an ethics review panel that were used to recruit couples for his research.

He said he had used a gene-editing procedure known as Crispr-Cas9 to rewrite the DNA in the sisters’ embryos – modifications he claimed would make the children immune to HIV.

He has continued to defend his work, despite widespread criticism, saying he was “proud” of having created Lulu and Nana. A third girl was born in 2019 as a result of similar experiments.

He told the Mainichi that he hoped to use genome editing in human embryos to develop treatments for rare genetic diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy and familial Alzheimer’s disease, at three laboratories he has opened since his release from prison in 2022.

He said the three genome-edited children were “perfectly healthy and have no problems with their growth”, according to the newspaper, adding that the twins, now aged 5, were attending kindergarten.

“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,” he told the Mainichi. “I’m proud to have helped families who wanted healthy children.”

He told the Guardian in 2023 that he had acted “too quickly” by pressing ahead with the procedure, but stopped short of voicing regret or apologising.

In his interview with the Mainichi, he said society would “eventually accept” human embryo gene editing in the quest to find treatments for genetic diseases.

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