The First Gene-Edited Babies Are Supposedly Alive and Well, Says Guy Who Edited Them

conceptual image of human cloning
First Gene-Edited Kids Supposedly Alive and WellGetty Images

He Jiankui shocked the scientific community in 2018 by announcing his team had used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool on twin girls when they were just embryos, resulting in the birth of the world’s first genetically modified babies. A third gene-edited child was born a year later.

Now, the disgraced gene-editing scientist, who was imprisoned in China for three years for the unethical practices, tells the South China Morning Post that all three children are doing well. “They have a normal, peaceful, and undisturbed life,” He says. “This is their wish, and we should respect them. The happiness of the children and their families should come first.”

He’s original goal was to use gene editing to attempt—many call this a live human experiment—to rewrite the CCR5 gene to create resistance to HIV. He says the genes were edited successfully and believed it gave the babies either complete or partial HIV resistance because of the mutation.

He’s claim of success is unsubstantiated. In fact, it remains unclear if the experiment was even effective at all, setting aside for a minute the (huge) ethical implications. According to a 2019 MIT Technology Review report, “the team didn’t actually reproduce the known mutation. Rather, they created new mutations, which might lead to HIV resistance, but might not.”

He tells the SCMP he anticipates and worries for the future of the three girls as a traditional father would. He plans to track their medical needs and hopes to raise money to pay for health-related expenses. “After the age of 18,” He says, “the children will decide whether to do medical follow-ups for their individual needs. We committed to doing this for their lifetimes.”

He, who was released from prison in April 2022, admits his experiments were rushed. “I did it too quickly,” he says. Still, the scientist has already set up a Beijing laboratory to work on gene therapies for genetic diseases.

The ethical dilemma that He introduced may just be the start of a long line of questions regarding gene editing. He and his three test subjects won’t be the only players in the saga, but they’ll always be on the main stage.

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