End of an Error?

The He Jiankui Show Seems to Be Collapsing
Biopolitical Times
Photo of He Jiankui

Photo: The He Lab, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who in 2018 infamously announced that he’d conducted the first known – and botched – attempt at heritable genome editing, was released from prison in April 2022. JK (as he is commonly known) and two associates were reportedly banned from any work related to assisted reproduction, and from applying for permits or even funds for human genetics research. 

Apparently, this did not stop him. By November 2022, JK had established a new lab in Beijing, with the stated intention, announced on Twitter, of “curing DMD” – Duchenne muscular dystrophy. In other words, he was moving in the direction of gene therapy rather than heritable human genome editing. He tweeted on February 3 that he had submitted a research proposal to an American funding agency, hoping to get $50,000 a year. (He later suggested his goal was to raise 50 million RMB, $7.3 million, and start clinical trials by March 2025.) Included in the tweet was He’s “Project Abstract” on “Affordable Gene Editing Therapy of DMD.” It is, I suppose, unfair to judge on the basis of a tweeted abstract, but it reads more like a fantasy than a plan.

In a further twist to the tale, He applied for a Hong Kong visa to “conduct gene-editing research using artificial intelligence” and was granted that visa on February 11, according to a post on WeChat. But when He announced it, on February 21, saying he was in touch with “universities, research institutes, and companies” there was an instant review of the application and the visa was revoked, on the grounds that he had “made false statements.” Applicants are required to have no criminal record. 

JK is clearly still ambitious and presumably his goal after his release from three years in prison was to establish himself in the elite circle of genome scientists. He cooperated with a movie that both demonstrated how close he had come to that circle (which loudly rejected him as soon as he became infamous) and left the impression that he was not really as far out of line as the press had depicted him. He took part in a closed-door discussion organized by the Global Observatory for Genome Editing “about his reasons and motivations for conducting the work,” under Chatham House rules so no details are publicly known. He accepted an invitation to speak at an Oxford event in March titled “Good Genes: CRISPR-Cas9 in Reproductive Medicine,” organized by Eben Kirksey, who saw JK as something of a scapegoat for a scientific community that was already moving in the direction of creating children with edited genomes to prevent disease. 

In a Guardian exclusive on February 4, He admitted that he had acted “too quickly” but refused to express regret or apologize, saying he would provide more details at the Oxford lecture. Which would have put him in the UK right around the time of the Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing on March 6–8, where organizing committee chair Robin Lovell-Badge said they would discuss “what has happened to the three children whose physiology he may have altered by genome editing” (among other musings about genetic alterations for bioweapon-resistant supersoldiers with infrared vision). He’s first big splash had been at the Second Summit, so the prospect of seeing him at the Third was … intriguing.  

In addition, He accepted an invitation to speak and answer questions at a February 11 event sponsored by the University of Kent’s Centre for Global Science and Epistemic Justice. Online participation at “Looking Back into the Future: CRISPR and Social Values,” billed as an open discussion with Chinese academics, was limited by the organizers. As the published summary stresses, they arranged to include other Chinese scientists, and expected JK to look back at his 2018 work and clarify his future plans. They gave him 40 minutes to talk. But the day before, JK tweeted:

I feel that I am not ready to talk about my experience in past 3 years. So I decide that, I will not visit Oxford in March. I will not attend the International Genome Editing Submit.

What everyone wanted to hear him discuss was, of course, not his jail time but his work, intentions and expectations in 2017–8, and the lessons he has learned. JK did show up at the Zoom event, from China, and did give a presentation, but it was a very simplistic introduction to gene therapy, suitable perhaps for a high school audience. The word that leapt to mind was jejune – naive, simplistic, and superficial. In fact it was downright insulting to an audience that largely consisted of academics. (The other three Chinese speakers all stressed the need for deeper discussion about bioethics, publicity and safety.) Worse was to come in the Q & A, when to every single question He Jiankui’s answer was: “Email me,” soon abbreviated to the one word, “Email.” He sounded like a reluctant witness taking the Fifth.

Maybe he was. One possible interpretation is that some official in Beijing conveyed the sense that the bumptious researcher was out of line. The timing is unclear but his proposed move to Hong Kong might have been a response to some kind of warning.

Reactions to the Zoom fiasco from those who witnessed it were uniformly critical. Anna Lisa Ahlers, a social scientist and China studies scholar, got “the impression that he is a salesman.” Robin Lovell-Badge left shortly before the end, expressing his disappointment. Bioethicist Françoise Baylis said that filling the time with irrelevant details “bordered on being insulting to the conference organizers and the participants.” CGS’ Marcy Darnovsky expressed concern that the focus on one individual distracted from the more important general question of whether there is a medical justification for heritable genome editing. 

Eben Kirksey, who has been less judgmental than most about He Jiankui’s activities, told Nature that:

“A publicity stunt like today shows he doesn’t have much credibility, at least in the eyes of his peers.”