Science & Tech

How Dr. He Jiankui bounced back from the CRISPR baby Scandal 

 By Findlay Tarik Baker (‘25) 

He Jian Kui is pictured here at the

The Baby Scandal

On November 25, 2018, the gene editing industry had both a revolutionary acceleration and a scientific drawback. He Jiankui, an associate professor in biophysics announced the success of genetically altered embryos using the CRISPR gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR-Cas9 is a scientific technology that allows geneticists and researchers to edit parts of the genome, by adding, removing, or modifying certain sequences within the DNA to construct defenses against harmful products. This ranges from protection against diseases, immune failures, and infections.  He used this tool on a human embryo, to minimize the possibility of the offspring of an HIV-positive parent passing HIV to their child. This was a tremendous advancement as he accelerated the evolution of gene editing, being the first time that the use of CRISPR resulted in the live birth of kids, from a permanently genetically modified embryo. When the twins, were born, they pushed the boundary of the genomic revolution to include a new generation of genetically engineered babies (also known as designer babies) (PubMed). This brought forward the question of human rights and the path that the science community was heading. Scientists believe that “the act of gene editing embryos is widely condemned as premature, dangerous, alarming and unethical” (PubMed Central).

Baby scandal hovers

The story of the two girls that grew from the embryos Dr. He and his group successfully modified greatly lingered within the scientific community for four years. Despite his positive interest, in his use of CRISPR-Cas9, he was tried and found guilty of conducting “illegal medical practices,” and sentenced to 3 years in prison (Science Insider). The courts within Shenzhen (the global center in China) found that Dr. He, as well as his collaborators, forged ethical review documents and misled doctors into unknowingly implanting gene-edited embryos into the women. Though this sparked the evolution of the gene-editing industry, he had “violated national regulations on biomedical research and medical ethics, rashly applying gene-editing technology”  without fully addressing how easily it could have failed. Dr. He Jiankui says “he is back in the lab after finishing his prison sentence for Crispr babies” (The Niche)

From China’s Frankenstein to Improved Research 

Since being released from prison in April 2022 and considered China’s Frankenstein, Dr. He has begun his comeback. He started by shifting his attention from human embryos to less disputed genetic therapies treating rare diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Acknowledging that he “moved too quickly” in the Crispr Baby experiment, Dr. He declared that had opened this lab for the purpose of “ engaging in research on affordable gene therapy,” making it more accessible to those who have fallen ill to poverty, (The Niche). Dr. He remains largely silent about his actions and even refused to show up at an engagement at the University of Oxford, as he did not “feel that [he] was ready to talk about [his] experience in the last 3 years” (Bill of Health). Though most scientists expressed an open mind towards Dr. He and his latest projects, the community still fears that he may return to his old unethical experiments. According to Matthew Chun, a Principal scientist and candidate at Harvard with a DPhil in engineering sciences, many academics “cannot agree on whether Dr. He should be allowed to attend and speak at scientific events outside of China,” for fear of false messaging (Harvard Law School). 

The Future of Gene Editing

On March 8th, researchers gathered in London at the Third International Summit on Human Genomic Editing to discuss the latest advance in deploying tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 to treat genetic diseases. They covered the promises and challenges of employing a new therapeutic genome editing therapy in people’s modern lives, knowing that despite its bright future, it would be impossible to shake the shadow cast by the Baby Scandal. According to Heidi Ledford, a reporter for the Nature Briefing Newsletter, “After nearly five years, scientists do not expect a similar revelation to enter the year’s summit.” Scientists believe that after the Baby Scandal, Dr. He’s experience would “dissuade rogue researchers from going public with controversial genome-editing experiments” (Nature Briefing). This is often not the case, as scientists are prone to take any chance they can get to further their knowledge in the field. Eben Kirksley, a medical anthropologist at the University of Oxford, UK, and a well-credited source by the science community, claims that “It would not be a surprise if there were other children that have been created with CRISPR-Cas9, that we have not heard about,” but the science community has begun to place tight regulations to prevent this from ever happening again. 

Ever since Dr. He produced the twins from the genetically modified embryo, technological aspects of using genome alternative tools have not fully changed. Though scientists have a clear idea of what it can bring to the future of science, they are also now aware of the dangers of the technique. Genome editing tools are still not ready for widespread use until scientists have found a way to prevent their dangers. Once these dangers are averted, only then will scientists be able to make the future of gene editing accurate: treating diseases, modifying defenses, and revitalizing the extinct possible. 

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