Rogue Chinese Scientist Regrets Not Being Transparent, Peer Says

(Bloomberg) -- Almost two months after He Jiankui retreated from view after shocking the world with claims he edited the genes of twin baby girls, the Chinese scientist told a Stanford University fellow researcher that he regrets not being more transparent and open about his project.

As authorities probe his controversial work, guards are stationed outside the apartment that He and his family are living in at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said William Hurlbut, an adjunct professor at Stanford Medical School. He has been communicating with Hurlbut since the scientist’s last public appearance at a conference in Hong Kong in November, the U.S. academic said.

Although He didn’t see any technical mistakes in his pre-clinical research, the researcher regrets the way he went about his clinical studies, according to Hurlbut. He feels “he should have stayed in a broader conversation with both the scientific and bioethics community,” the Stanford neurobiologist said in an email Friday.

He’s claim that he altered the genes of recently-born twin girls while they were embryos in a bid to make them HIV-resistant ignited a global backlash. His university disavowed his work and fellow researchers rebuked the scientist including Hurlbut, whom He had consulted over the past two years on his genetics research.

The government halted work at his lab and is carrying out an investigation, saying it would take a “zero tolerance attitude in dealing with dishonorable behavior” in research. It also asked universities last month to inspect all research work on gene editing and confirm there were no ethical breaches.

The whereabouts of the Chinese researcher have been a mystery since November. He couldn’t be reached for a comment. A spokesman for He declined to comment, as did a representative for the university.

“He told me that in both his living situation and in the process of the investigation, he’s being treated respectfully,” Hurlbut had said in a Thursday interview. He can go out for walks, email and call friends. The Chinese scientist thinks the guards provide “reasonable” protection given the wide “range of reactions to his research,” he said.

Given He’s descriptions of his situation, the Stanford professor said he was surprised by a recent media story that speculated He could face charges that result in a death penalty.

The Asian researcher, criticized for being surreptitious about his gene-editing project, was defiant in November, saying he was “proud” of his work and was moved to pursue it out of compassion for those stigmatized and afflicted with HIV.

Even as He waits for the siege to lift, his research has sparked a broader global debate on where the scientific community and governments draw the line on pushing the boundaries of genetics science.

“When it comes down to discussions about what the investigation has shown, what should happen and what we need to do, it’s a much bigger story. This is not just about J.K.,” said Hurlbut, who calls He by his initials. “It’s about the whole meaning of how we govern and guide international science.”

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