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Scientist Who Gene-Edited Human Babies Back in the Lab Again After Prison Release

Chinese scientist He Jiankui shocked the world in 2018, when news emerged that he had used the powerful gene-editing technique CRISPR to tinker with the genetic code of several human embryos that were later born as babies.

The experiments led to a massive uproar, with scientists, ethicists, and regulators balking at the "egregious scientific and ethical lapses."

In 2019, He was sentenced to three years in prison for violating medical regulations.

Now, roughly a year and a half after being released from prison, the scientist has resumed his research on human embryo gene editing — and only has a few regrets about his past work.

In a new interview with Japanese newspaper the Mainichi Shimbun, He reflected on his belief that we'll soon be facing a demand for "designer babies."

"We will use discarded human embryos and comply with both domestic and international rules," he said, shutting down rumors that he was working on a follow-up to the twin sisters, who were born back in 2018 after modifying their genes before birth in a bid to make them immune to HIV.

However, He said that he's working on ways to treat genetic diseases including Duchenne muscular dystrophy and familial Alzheimer's disease with gene-editing techniques in human embryos.

Since being released from prison, the researcher has kept busy, making in-person appearances last year in Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss his motivations and actions.

The topic of his research, however, has remained controversial. In March 2023, He was set to speak at Oxford University, but mysteriously canceled the appearance, tweeting that "I feel that I am not ready to talk about my experience in past three years."

During a virtual and in-person bioethics event last year, He also refused to answer any questions, a decision that was later criticized by other experts in his field as a "publicity stunt."

Given his latest interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, He is now starting to open up. His comments, however, aren't exactly giving away anything particularly new, and his research remains shrouded in mystery.

The scientist told the Japanese newspaper that the twin girls, as well as a third child that was born in 2019, are all "perfectly healthy and have no problems with their growth."

He claimed that the results of the experiments were looking promising and that an analysis had shown that "there were no modifications to the genes other than for the medical objective, providing evidence that genome editing was safe."

"I'm proud to have helped families who wanted healthy children," he added.

When asked about the criticism that was triggered by his research, He appeared largely unshaken.

"I regret that it was too hasty," he told the Mainichi Shimbun, refusing to elaborate further.

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