He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who sparked worldwide public outcry recently after claiming to have produced the world’s first gene-edited babies using CRISPR technology, seems to have gone missing. According to reports from Chinese media, the geneticist’s whereabouts are currently unknown.
The scientist reportedly has not been seen in public since delivering a presentation in Hong Kong last week on the human gene editing experiment, which Chinese authorities condemned.
There are rumors that he is under house arrest at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, the institution that employs him, and from which he has been on leave since February.
He Jiankui rattled the scientific community last week when he announced that he had manipulated the DNA of twin girls, allegedly making them resistant to the HIV virus, although other scientists have said it is too early to tell if the procedure was actually successful or not. The editing was done during fertility treatments for a couple in which the father was HIV-positive.
A spokesperson for his employer, the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said that rumors of his detention by authorities are untrue. “Right now nobody’s information is accurate, only the official channels are,” the spokesperson said, adding that the university would make no further comments on the whereabouts of the former Stanford University postdoctoral fellow.
In a series of YouTube videos, he announced that he had successfully edited the genome of human embryos using CRISPR-Cas9 – and then those embryos, twin girls, had been successfully brought to term. CRISPR-cas9 has been used before to treat certain diseases, but never to determine what could be passed onto a baby.
His colleague, bioengineering professor Michael Deem of Rice University in the US, is also under investigation for his potential role in the proceedings.