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Genetic Linkage

French Anderson, “Father” of Gene Therapy, Released From Prison

Tonight French Anderson, 81, was released from state prison in California, after serving nearly a dozen years for “inappropriate touching and medical exams” of a girl, from 1997 to 2001, starting when she was ten.

Dr. Anderson headed the first clinical trial for gene therapy at the NIH in 1990, and he helped me when I was writing my book about the field, The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It, which St. Martin’s Press published in 2012. I’d snail mail chapters to French’s wife Kathy, she’d take them to him, he’d mark them up with a pencil, and she’d mail them back.

French has always maintained his innocence and went to great effort to forensically discount the evidence against him, with several investigators demonstrating that the audiotape used to convict him– he appears to apologize to the victim – was spliced. He claims other evidence was falsified.

It is a complicated story involving the Chinese government’s interest in his discovery that an interleukin given to mice after exposure to high doses of radiation rescued them – a finding with profound military applications that was not the impetus for the study. French had been interested in treating radiation poisoning in cancer patients. A researcher in his lab patented the work in China – and she is the mother of the sexual abuse victim. I’ll leave it to others to assemble the puzzle pieces.

But I am sitting here absolutely stunned that one of the first things that French did when he returned home was to call me! Minutes ago!

I told some of his story at my website, after the other publications I regularly have contributed to wouldn’t touch it. (And The Forever Fix cut about 10 pages on his case.) French’s release made the biotech news about a month ago, but the most detailed account is “Gene Therapy Pioneer William French Anderson to be Freed from Prison This Spring,” by Laura Coleman, in the Beverly Hills Courier, who is writing a book and doing a podcast on the case. When I heard in April of the upcoming release from prison, and knowing my legal limitations, I recommended one of my favorite science writers to tell the full story, coming out next month.

Tonight, caught off guard, I asked French his reaction to the recent successes in gene therapy, an idea he first spoke about in the late 1950s.

“I’m amazed by all the advances, as well as the enormous number of clinical trials going on all over the world – more than 1000! It’s extraordinarily exciting.” He recalls the downplaying of that initial clinical trial, which treated two girls, 4-year-old Ashi and 8-year-old Cynthia, for adenosine deaminase deficiency. “Even when the 1990 work is mentioned, quotes say that it worked, but it was only temporary. Anybody who’s looked at the literature will see that the paper said it worked at the 4-year follow-up. Ashi still has a therapeutic level of gene-corrected cells in her bloodstream 28 years later.”

Of course all gene therapy recipients – the young people who’ve gotten their vision back with Luxturna, the children with inherited neurological diseases I’ve profiled here at DNA Science even as recently as last week (“Celebrating the Moms of Gene Therapy") – will have to be followed for years to tell whether the effect is sustained or booster doses necessary. And all the while, researchers are engineering safer and more efficient viral vectors as CRISPR-deployed gene fixes wait in the wings.

I can’t wait to see what French Anderson will contribute to the now exploding field of gene therapy.

This post first appeared at my blog DNA Science for Public Library of Science.
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