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Genetic Linkage

Imprisoned Gene Therapy Pioneer, French Anderson, Launches Website

William French Anderson, MD
In September 1990, William French Anderson, MD, posed with 4-year-old Ashi DeSilva at the NIH clinical center. Days earlier, she’d become the first recipient of gene therapy, a biotechnology that Dr. Anderson and others had been thinking about since Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA in 1953.

On July 29, 2004, Dr. Anderson, then 67, was arrested at his home in San Marino, California, and charged with molesting the daughter of a co-worker. The “inappropriate touching and medical exams” allegedly happened from 1997 to 2001, starting when the girl was ten. He has always maintained his innocence.

Dr. Anderson was tried in June 2006, convicted the next month, and sentenced to 14 years in prison on February 3, 2007. More than 200 scientists, many quite prominent, formed "Friends of French Anderson" and sent detailed letters to the court vouching for his character. But despite appeals, he has been in prison all this time.

Out of options, Dr. Anderson has just unveiled a website, www.wfrenchanderson.org that includes forensic evidence in his defense and other documents. He’s asked me to spread the word. I won’t discuss the evidence or legal details, at least not yet, but I wanted to relate how I came to learn about the case.

I’d read Dr. Anderson’s papers through the 1980s and 1990s, and was shocked to learn about his situation. I was at the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy annual meeting in May 2010, having breakfast with the main “characters” in the book I was writing, The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It. One of the researchers mentioned how Dr. Anderson had been the one to convince her to go to medical school, so I asked her for an update on what he was working on. Still inherited immune deficiencies?

The researcher grew quiet for a moment, then told me where he was. She didn’t go into too much detail, because children were present, but suggested I e-mail Dr. Anderson’s wife Kathy, and read an article in the October 2007 issue of Wired, "Molest Conviction Unravels Gene Pioneer’s Life", by Jennifer Kahn. I did both.

Kathy and I emailed and spoke on the phone. She recommended that I read “French Anderson: The Father of Gene Therapy,” by Bob Burke and Barry Epperson, published in 2003, for background. That took awhile to find, but meanwhile I wrote to Dr. Anderson asking him to read my chapters. He eagerly agreed.

Prisons have strict rules about what a prisoner can receive, so Kathy brought my manuscript, a chapter at a time, to her husband. A few weeks later, the chapters came back to me marked up, along with a letter explaining that he wasn’t yet free to speak to me, nor had he been free to tell Jennifer Kahn, about evidence he believed would exonerate him.

Because Dr. Anderson is one of the founders of gene therapy, I included his story in my book. But as I’d feared, that section ended up on the cutting room floor. My editor at St. Martin’s Press drew big red X’s through it, although she passed it on to the attorney – who rejected it immediately. Only the basic biographical info on Dr. Anderson remained, up through 1992, all in the context of leading the first gene therapy experiment. A lone sentence in the endnotes refers to the Wired article.

The publisher’s instincts were correct. People don’t like to read or hear about child sex abuse cases, especially when the verdict was guilty. The first few times I gave “the book talk,” I mentioned Dr. Anderson’s troubles. Big mistake. When a woman yelled at me after a presentation at a university as if I were a child molester, I took that part out.

The Forever Fix was published in March 2012. One cobbled-together quote from Dr. Anderson made it through, opening part III, “Evolution of an Idea”: “If you have people dying of genetic disease, due to a defective gene, then you correct the gene … I am delighted that today, gene therapy is having a rebirth.” But so much is left out in the dot-dot-dot deletion.

The quote came from an email via Kathy, in response to my asking how it felt to be watching the field that he helped to found soar, from behind bars. “My total mental efforts are towards exoneration and release. Then I'll see where the field stands and whether my brain can catch up. I am delighted that gene therapy is having a rebirth. I hope the near future will allow a hypothetical book entitled, ‘The rise and fall and rebirth of French Anderson and the wife who is his foundation,’” he answered.

So like an intron cut from a gene sequence, coverage of Dr. Anderson’s circumstance vanished from my book. I sent a copy of it once it was published to the Andersons and we stayed in touch.

In July 2012, the conviction was upheld. But the Drs. Anderson (Kathy is a surgeon) weren’t ready to give up.

In September 2012, Kathy sent me an updated version of “My Story,” a document by her husband that is posted on his website. They had new forensic evidence clearly showing a set-up, a spliced tape used to get the conviction, she said. Would I write an article about what their investigators had found? The Andersons had already shared that evidence with the editor of a top genetics publication. Intrigued, the editor sent me the report on the evidence (also on the website), and asked me to develop a story, perhaps for the January 2013 issue. I got as far as a detailed outline before attorneys for the publication nixed the idea.

Around that time, I’d just started writing the DNA Science blog at Public Library of Science (PLOS). When the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in October took me to San Francisco, where PLOS is based, I stopped in to meet my editor. Could I post about Dr. Anderson’s case?

Like the St. Martin’s editor and attorney, the PLOS editor and attorney said no. The information I had was proprietary. But that’s no longer the case.

The reason that the forensic evidence is now being made public is that on December 16, 2013, the California Supreme Court denied a Petition for Review, which would have enabled Dr. Anderson’s team to present that evidence.

On December 31, French Anderson turned 78. He does not want to die in prison.

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