Chinese Scientist Responsible for Gene-Edited Babies Has Reportedly Gone Missing

By George Dvorsky on at

The current whereabouts of He Jiankui—the scientist who claims to have engineered the world’s first genetically modified human babies—is unknown. Rumours are now circulating that he’s been detained by the Chinese government.

The last that anyone has seen or heard from He Jiankui was on Wednesday 28 November, after he spoke in Hong Kong at the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, the South China Morning Post reports.

The scientist is currently mired in an intense controversy after claiming to have produced the world’s first gene-edited babies. He said he used the CRISPR gene-editing system to modify the DNA of human embryos, resulting in the birth of twin girls with an alleged immunity to the AIDS virus. Because gene-editing is still in its nascent stage of development, He was criticised for conducting the experiment prematurely and for implanting the modified embryos in the mother’s womb. To make matters worse, the clinical trial was done in secret, and He failed to go through the normal channels, among other alleged improprieties.

He Jiankui at the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, held last week in Hong Kong. Chinese media reports that he has not been seen since. (Image: AP)

As reported by Newsweek, the Hong Kong-based publication Apple Daily claims the embattled scientist was summoned back to Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, where he works, at the close of the Hong Kong summit. Also, the university’s president, Chen Shiyi, is apparently under house arrest on campus and security guards have been stationed on the university grounds, Apple Daily reports.

These claims, however, have not been corroborated. A spokesperson for the the university told the South China Morning Post that, “Right now nobody’s information is accurate, only the official channels are,” adding that “We cannot answer any questions regarding the matter right now, but if we have any information, we will update it through our official channels.”

He, who is currently on unpaid leave, did not disclose the details of his research to the university. In a statement released last week, the university said He’s work “seriously violated academic and ethics standards,” prompting the establishment of an independent committee and investigation into the matter.

Likewise, the Chinese government has also condemned the work, saying the experiment “crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable,” in the words of Xy Nanping, China’s vice minister of science and technology. On Thursday, the Chinese government claimed to shut down the gene-editing project and launched its own investigation.

The Chinese government has a habit of making people disappear for extended periods of time, the most recent example being Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, who went missing this past July. Fan issued a statement in early October, at which time she was formally charged with tax evasion and other offences. Considered China’s highest-paid actress, Fan was ordered to pay 884 million yuan (£102 million) to avoid criminal prosecution. She made her first public appearance in late October after months of detention.

No evidence exists at this time to support the suggestion that He is being detained by the Chinese government, but it’s a possibility that has to be considered. His rogue experiment is seen by some as a tremendous embarrassment to China and its scientists, who are trying to shake accusations that China is now the unregulated Wild West of biomedical research.

Of course, detaining super-rich celebrities for tax evasion is not the same thing as detaining a scientist who’s gone rogue, but it wouldn’t be out of character for the Chinese government to make an example of He. [South China Morning Post, Newsweek]