Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2021
As delegates were starting to gather in Hong Kong for the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, Antonio Regalado was sitting at home in Somerville, Massachusetts, at his wife's desk. It was the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Antonio was under deadline pressure. His editor at the MIT Technology Review had given him leave for an extended research trip to China, where the aim was to investigate the flurry of CRISPR activity with human embryos on the mainland. The trip had concluded a few weeks earlier. It was time to file the story, but he was still fishing for a big scoop.
Antonio had traveled to Guangzhou and Shanghai, where he talked with key Chinese scientists. In Guangzhou he had interviewed Dr. Junjiu Huang, the scientist who grabbed headlines in April 2015 for creating the first CRISPR-modified embryo. A movie trailer dramatizes his investigative journey with a dark ambient soundtrack that invokes Blade Runner: “It's finding needles in stacks of needles,” Antonio says. “There is a cover-up. Babies whose genomes have been mutated as part of the international science race.”
Antonio Regalado interviewed Jiankui He while on his investigative journey in China. The pair talked about his preclinical research with CCR5 and in broad terms about the future of related research in the clinic.
Fishing around for information that Sunday morning in Massachusetts, Antonio simply Googled “Jiankui He CCR5.” Trolling through the results, he found a document, in English, that had been uploaded in China's clinical trial registry just a few weeks before. Dr. He's lab reported that an experiment was under way. Anyone with an internet connection and the right search terms could read about a CRISPR clinical trial recruiting HIV-positive patients with infertility problems. The document did not have many details, but it clearly said the aim was to help “healthy children to avoid HIV providing new insights for the future elimination of major genetic diseases in early human embryos.”
Dr. He's phone rang on Monday morning in Shenzhen. He was getting ready to head across the border for the summit in Hong Kong. Antonio confronted him with the information about the experiment he’d found online, but Dr. He was not willing to talk.