Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2021
Shortly after the birth of Lulu and Nana, Dr. Jiankui He went on a short jaunt to Hainan, a tropical island known for beach resorts and medical tourism. The Chinese government had established a special zone for medical experimentation here, with regulations designed to promote cutting-edge medical research. The provincial government was encouraging “research that is forbidden or controlled elsewhere,” as Cory Doctorow reports in Boing Boing. The special medical zone of Hainan was inspired by Shenzhen's special economic zone. Foreign capital was welcome alongside international “talent, technology, devices and drugs,” according to Doctorow.
Dr. He was traveling to Hainan with John Zhang, a Chinese American gynecologist who was no stranger to controversy. According to the Washington Post, Dr. Zhang “is blowing up the way humans reproduce” by conducting experiments in spaces with little regulation. after earning his PhD from the University of Cambridge in England, Zhang moved to New York City, where he made headlines for helping a forty-nine-year-old woman become the oldest person to carry her own child. He is perhaps most renowned (or infamous) for commercially producing the world's first “three-parent” baby in 2016, by transferring nuclear DNA from one mother into a healthy donor egg from another mother. The baby inherited most of its recognizable genetic traits from the first mother, but the second mother also contributed DNA inside the egg's mitochondria—tiny oblong structures, or organelles, that provide cells with energy. Dr. Zhang created this embryo in the United States and then transferred it to the mother's uterus in Mexico, triggering a stern warning from the FDA: “Such human subject research cannot legally be performed in the United States. Nor is exportation permitted.”
Dr. He and Dr. Zhang brought a large entourage with them to Hainan. A Chinese supermodel was along for the ride, a woman who was the public face of Mixed Wisdom, an IVF marketing company that was recruiting patients from mainland China. Ryan Ferrell was there, along with other collaborators who were helping plan a new experimental fertility clinic, including an executive from Vienomics Biotech, one of Dr. He's Shenzhen start-ups. All told, the posse had ten members. They had already sent a proposal to the provincial government, promising to establish a full-time R&D team of 300 people, including 100 doctors. Two vehicles picked them up at the airport.