The story of the “gene-edited babies” and Dr He Jiankui keeps getting stranger and stranger. Just over a week since the controversy began, there are now claims that He has not been seen since he spoke about his research in Hong Kong last week and his whereabouts are unknown.
There are also unconfirmed rumors whirling around that he’s been placed effectively under house arrest at his former university.
On November 25, He Jiankui announced via YouTube that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies by using CRISPR/Cas9 technology to disable a single gene in order to “shut the doorway” through which HIV can enter and infect cells. Although he didn’t back up his claims with any real evidence or data, controversy quickly sprung up with scientists around the world condemning the lack of ethics behind his actions as “deeply concerning”, “shocking”, and “monstrous” – if it was actually true, of course.
China’s Ministry of Science and Technology denounced the research as "extremely abominable in nature", according to the Xinhua state news agency. His former place of work, the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), also denied any knowledge of the research and suggested Dr He had gone rogue.
It was then claimed that He had been ordered back to SUSTech where he was being held effectively under house arrest, according to Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily. The university has denied this, however.
“Right now nobody’s information is accurate, only the official channels are,” a SUSTech spokesperson told the South China Morning Post.
“We cannot answer any questions regarding the matter right now, but if we have any information, we will update it through our official channels.”
SUSTech released a statement the day after He's work came to light, distancing the institution from his experiment. It claimed He had been on leave without pay since February 2018. However, over the past week, the university has kept quiet on the matter. In short, nobody seems certain where He is.
Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding the research has not died down. In light of the news, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) is creating an expert panel to study the implications of gene editing and draw some guidelines to cover the minefield of ethical and safety concerns.
“Not good, not good, not good," Darren Griffin, Professor of Genetics at the University of Kent, who was not involved in the research, said in reaction to the news of the gene-edited babies last week. "In a world where scientists, by and large, try to be aware of ethical and social issues surrounding the work that we do, this report takes us back to the Stone Age."