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Biotechnology and health

Disgraced CRISPR scientist had plans to start a designer-baby business

He Jiankui met with US investors and entrepreneurs to explore CRISPR-baby tourism.
He Jiankui
He JiankuiPexels/Wayne Evans

The disgraced Chinese scientist who created the world’s first gene-edited babies had hoped to turn designer humans into a medical tourism business.

According to an investigation published today by Science, He Jiankui discussed with advisers and partners his idea for a company that would genetically engineer children to resist HIV, heart attacks, and other health problems.

The business could have been located in China or Thailand, perhaps attracting elite customers from other countries, He hoped.

Starting last August, for example, He met on several occasions with the successful Chinese-American fertility doctor John Zhang, whose New Hope fertility clinic in New York is one of the country’s busiest. The two discussed opening a clinic together in China. Another advisor said He’s plan was a new company focused on “genetic medical tourism,” according to the report in Science.

He’s commercial plans appear to have been preliminary and not well formed. Regardless, they came to a crashing end in November, when the Chinese scientist stunned the world by announcing he’d edited the DNA of twin girls using the gene-engineering technology CRISPR, in an attempt to make them immune to HIV.

Reaction to the announcement was swift and devastatingly negative. He was placed under house arrest in China and may face criminal charges.

The episode has reignited questions over whether such “germline” engineering, which makes heritable genetic changes to embryos or eggs, should be allowed at all. Last week, the director general of the World Health Organization said it would be “irresponsible” for anyone to make designer babies at this time and that “all countries should not allow any further work in this area until its implications have been properly considered.”

However, some medical experts view the practice as inevitable and a potential way to eliminate genetic disease. They predict that clinics will begin offering it,  in secret if necessary.

Business hopes

He Jiankui explains the genome sequencer built by one of his companies, Direct Genomics, to former US secretary of state John Kerry.

After two years of preparation, He’s team, operating from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, was ready to try to make the first CRISPR babies by early 2018. He dreamed of scoring a big scientific success that would be even more important than in vitro fertilization, bringing glory and recognition to China.

By that April, he was telling key contacts of his “success”—one woman was pregnant.

These people included his old advisor, Stephen Quake, a hugely influential figure in genetic technology who is a professor at Stanford University and co-president of the CZ Biohub, an institute financed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife.

Quake has said he was a bystander who gave his former student only tepid encouragement. Stanford later investigated Quake’s dealings with He and cleared him of wrongdoing.

However, Quake did open his Rolodex for He, putting him in touch with important contacts. For example, in May 2018, just a month after he learned of the CRISPR pregnancies, Quake wrote to Andy May, then CZ Biohub’s chief genome engineer,  who was previously the chief scientist of the CRISPR company Caribou Biosciences.

According to an email reviewed by MIT Technology Review, Quake introduced He as a former student of his in town “with a genome engineering project that I think you will find interesting.” A meeting was set for a few days later.

A spokesman for May said the arranged meeting never took place, while Quake says the email was simply an introduction to another scientist. “I was not aware of JK’s attempts to commercialize his genome editing research and certainly did not facilitate any attempts to do so or to find investors,” Quake says.

But one investment contact Quake facilitated did hear about the plan for a baby business. The Stanford professor had earlier put He in touch with Steve Lombardi, the onetime CEO of a failed gene-sequencing company called Helicos that Quake had founded, and which He was repositioning in China as a new company, Direct Genomics.

“I put him in front of as many people as I could,” Lombardi told reporter Jon Cohen, author of the Science story.

According to Lombardi, He eventually told him about his idea for a “genetic medical tourism” company based in China or Thailand. He seemed to think that if he could create children immune to HIV using CRISPR,  he could then move on to making humans immune to heart disease and other problems.

Lombardi, however, says he never got the chance to help He pitch that idea to venture capitalists because the Chinese scientist backed out. 

A willing partner

John Zhang
John Zhang is the founder of New Hope Fertility in Manhattan. He discussed a collaboration with the Chinese scientists who created the first CRISPR babies.
New Hope Fertility Clinic | Yelp

He’s ideas for a CRISPR-baby business appears to have progressed more quickly once he met Zhang, a fertility doctor who has been involved in the so-called “three-parent baby” technique. That’s a fertility procedure for moving the DNA of an older woman’s egg into that of a younger woman.

It’s banned in the US, so Zhang has instead carried it out in Mexico and Ukraine, thereby flouting restrictions he sees as senseless.

In Zhang, He found someone who was openly fascinated by the promise of genetic engineering and willing to take big chances. “Everything we do is a step toward designer babies,” Zhang told MIT Technology Review in 2017. “With nuclear transfer and gene editing together, you can really do anything you want.” 

According to Science, He and Zhang met in August of 2018 in New York, where they talked about establishing an IVF clinic in China. Later, there were more meetings in China—some with provincial officials in Hainan, a southern island that aims to be a destination for medical tourism.

The problem facing Zhang is that making genetically modified babies is illegal in the US. Congress has barred the Food and Drug Administration from allowing anyone to carry out either CRISPR editing or the DNA-swapping approach. In 2017, the agency warned Zhang to stop advertising the three-parent technology. China also has certain restrictive rules, like a ban on surrogacy.

Helping both Chinese and US couples dodge such limitations through medical tourism has become an important part of Zhang’s IVF empire, which now spans four continents.

The connection between He and Zhang started to become apparent last November, after He sponsored an opinion poll on Chinese attitudes toward gene-editing babies. It found that more than 60% of people in China viewed the technology favorably, if it was used to treat disease.

A press release touting “broad acceptance” of the idea included a supporting quote from Zhang: “It is apparent from the data collected that the masses support gene editing for medical usage.”

Zhang told Science that his deal with He is obviously not moving forward now: “After all this happened, of course we’re not going to have any further collaboration,” he said.

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