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

Update: To read an excellent, more complete version of this story, see Sharon Begley’s recent report at STAT News. I’ve amended my post below, from 10 weeks ago.

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.

(shameless book plug)

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. All legal.

He has always maintained his innocence and forensic investigations have provided evidence  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. I told some of it here, after the other publications I regularly have contributed to wouldn’t touch it. (And The Forever Fix publisher cut about 10 pages on the case.) The most detailed account from his point of view that I am aware of 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.

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

The number is much higher now of people with sight restored thanks to the gene therapy Luxturna, FDA approved in December 2017. (Foundation Fighting Blindness)

“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.


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