Out of prison, the ‘father of gene therapy’ faces a harsh reality: a tarnished legacy and an ankle monitor

“I used to be famous and now I’m infamous": After his release from prison, gene therapy pioneer and convicted child molester Dr. W. French Anderson disses CRISPR and talks about…

NORCO, Calif. — Dr. W. French Anderson is settling into a leather chair in the family room of his ranch-style stucco home in southern California this June evening, marked-up issues of scientific journals tumbling off piles on the floor beside him. Slowly, he lifts his right leg onto the matching ottoman. He has an hour to kill. That’s how long he must charge his ankle monitor, which tells his parole officer where he is at all times.

This is what it has come to for a world-renowned scientist who was convicted of sexually molesting a colleague’s young daughter. Anderson has been hailed as the father of gene therapy and was honored at George H.W. Bush’s White House. In 1991, the New York Times ran a laudatory story headlined “Dr. Anderson’s Gene Machine.” He started the first gene therapy company and sold it to a major drug maker in 1995 for $325 million, was a Time “hero of medicine” in 1997 and scientific consultant to the 1997 film “Gattaca,” and was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1998 (with singer Reba McEntire).

But in July 2006, Anderson was convicted of three counts of lewd acts on a child and one count of continuous sexual abuse, including fondling her genitals. The sexual assaults started in 1997 when the girl was 10 and Anderson was 60, prosecutors said, and lasted until 2001 — abuse that his victim testified in court caused her “pain that led me to cut my own body and contemplate suicide.” Her mother ran Anderson’s lab, and he had mentored the child academically and in karate.

Before sentencing Anderson to 14 years in prison, Judge Michael Pastor said he had caused the girl “incalculable” emotional damage: “Because of intellectual arrogance, he persisted and he got away with as much as he could.”

This May, Anderson, now 81, was released on parole. Two weeks later, STAT spoke to him. We were interested in his views — as someone who’d once been near the pinnacle of medical science — of the research advances during his years behind bars, especially in gene therapy and genetics. We wanted to know what became of his own science when he was incarcerated, and whether he planned to return to the lab. But we made clear that we did not plan to re-investigate the criminal case, or provide a platform for his detailed arguments that he was wrongly convicted.

During his 2006 trial, prosecutors played a tape in which Anderson told his victim that his behavior — unspecified in the conversation

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