W. French Anderson, the ‘Father of Gene Therapy’ Released from Prison

Prison Release

After spending 14 years behind bars for sexually molesting a 10-year-old girl, famed geneticist W. French Anderson was shocked to see the leaps and bounds made by scientists in his field when he emerged from prison.

Anderson was once lauded for his research and earned the nickname the “father of gene editing” but now realizes he has been left behind. In an interview with STAT News, Anderson said he felt like Rip Van Winkle after waking up from his long nap due to the rapid changes that occurred in an industry where he was once at the top of the field. STAT’s interview focused on Anderson’s thoughts on science and did not provide the disgraced scientist a platform to retry his case in a public setting.

Throughout his incarceration, Anderson said he attempted to keep up with current research by reading articles from science-based literature his wife would send him. Once released from prison though, it appears that the 81-year-old Anderson, who is homebound with an electronic monitor, reads as much as possible. STAT said he could recall “in near-cinematic detail” the research of his past, but was somewhat dismissive of current scientific research, such as work with CRISPR gene-editing technology. Why Anderson was dismissive of the revolutionary technology was not made clear in the article.

The STAT report spends a great deal of time recounting Anderson’s scientific accomplishments, including the research he was conducting with killer “suicide genes” right before his arrest. Anderson said his idea was to use viruses to carry the genes into tumors to kill the cancer cells. As he described it to STAT, the “key step was creating mutant forms of the Moloney virus.” The virus infects mice but can be “tweaked” to infect human cells. Anderson was working on a virus that would kill cancer cells while sparing healthy normal cells, STAT said. Anderson told STAT that he had not published the concept of how his killer cells would work.

“It’s still in my head, but that doesn’t do much good: I’m 81 years old and don’t have a lab. But we were close,” Anderson told STAT.

Some of Anderson’s colleagues, as well as other researchers who followed his work, dismissed Anderson’s claims, STAT said. They suggested Anderson was “out of his depth” and that “it didn’t seem like there was much science” to what he was doing.

Although without a real lab to work in, Anderson said he hopes to follow up on one experiment in his wife’s kitchen. He said it’s based on an observation made when working in the NIH lab of Marshall Nirenberg in 1966. Anderson warmed a solution of “the paired DNA bases G and C in a test tube,” which became a solid. When it cooled, it became liquid. He told STAT that he wondered if heat would “allow the two bases to form a double helix like DNA.” If so, Anderson said that would be a major step in the origin of life.

The article winds through Anderson’s recounting of his time in prison, how he adjusted to life behind bars while his wife of more than 50 years stood beside him on the outside of prison. In prison, the scientist helped tutor some of the inmates he was serving time with who were attempting to earn GEDs or other academic awards. 

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