Chinese scientist behind gene-edited babies under guard in Shenzhen

Dr He Jiankui, said he used Crispr, a gene-editing technique, to alter a gene in human embryos - and then implanted the embryos in the womb of a woman, who gave birth to twin girls in November. PHOTO: REUTERS

SHENZHEN • The Chinese scientist who shocked the world by claiming that he had created the world's first genetically edited babies is sequestered in a small university guesthouse in the southern city of Shenzhen, where he remains under guard by a dozen unidentified men.

The sighting of the scientist, Professor He Jiankui, last week was the first since he appeared at a conference in Hong Kong in late November and defended his actions.

For the past few weeks, rumours had swirled about whether Prof He was under house arrest. His university and the Chinese government, which has put the scientist under investigation, have been silent about his fate.

Prof He now lives in a fourth-floor apartment at a guesthouse for visiting teachers on the sprawling campus of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen's Nanshan district, where many of China's best-known tech companies, like Tencent, have their offices.

Last month, Prof He stunned the global scientific community when he claimed to have created the world's first babies from genetically edited embryos, implanted in a woman who gave birth to twin girls.

While he did not provide proof that the gene-edited twins were born, he presented data suggesting he had done what he claimed.

Many Chinese scientists said Prof He's project was emblematic of their country's intense focus on scientific achievement and a disregard for ethical standards.

Some Chinese researchers have been ambitious in experimenting with the use of Crispr, a gene-editing tool that makes altering DNA relatively easy and which Prof He used in his trial.

Last Wednesday, Prof He was seen pacing up and down the balcony of his guesthouse, gesticulating in the air. At other moments, he could be seen talking to a woman who appeared to be his wife, who was carrying a baby swaddled in a white cloth. Two balconies attached to his apartment were fenced off by metal wiring.

That evening, four unidentified men in plainclothes stood guard outside Prof He's apartment.

One said: "How did you know that Professor He is here?" It was unclear whether the guards were affiliated with the police, the university or another organisation.

He is allowed to make phone calls and send e-mails. Mr Chen Peng, a co-founder of the gene-testing company Vienomics with Prof He, said he spoke to the scientist several days ago about company matters.

China's Ministry of Education has asked universities to inspect all research work on gene editing and submit a report to the government by year-end to show that the work does not breach ethical boundaries.

The notice, posted on the websites of several universities, ordered them to focus their "self-inspection" on all programmes relating to gene editing since 2013.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 30, 2018, with the headline Chinese scientist behind gene-edited babies under guard in Shenzhen. Subscribe