Perspectives on CRISPR baby guy He Jiankui (贺建奎) going to jail

Jiankui He who claims CRISPR baby production
Jiankui He in video claiming CRISPR baby production, now sentenced to prison.

Scientist He Jiankui(贺建奎) has been sentenced to 3 years in prison by Chinese authorities. Two collaborators also will go to jail. A piece in Science by Dennis Normile on the sentencing of He Jiankui ID’d the other two: “His collaborators were identified as Zhang Renli, of a medical institution in Guangdong province, and Qin Jinzhou, from a Shenzhen medical institution.”

Is this jail term an appropriate or even positive outcome here all things considered? Over the top?

Dr. He became known colloquially as “the CRISPR baby guy” or synonymous names ever since he reported the production of two babies with mutations in the CCR5 gene.

The mutations were produced via introduction of CRISPR-Cas9 machinery into human embryos.

It’s unknown both whether the partially random gene mutations could achieve his goal of providing some resistance to HIV infection and whether they may cause other undesirable effects. In fact, we don’ even know for sure that He Jiankui even really produced the babies he said he did, but it seems very likely.

Reactions to He’s sentence have been mixed ranging from extremes of too much to too little. A Twitter poll I started yesterday (see above) is just about done and the most common answer was “about right” for the sentence, with 68% of responses either saying “about right” or “too light.”

Normile’s Science piece on the sentencing of He Jiankui included quotes from a number of researchers that are of interest:

“Sad story—everyone lost in this (JK, his family, his colleagues, and his country), but the one gain is that the world is awakened to the seriousness of our advancing genetic technologies. I feel sorry for JK’s little family though—I warned him things could end this way, but it was just too late,” wrote bioethicist William Hurlbut at Stanford University, whom He consulted on the embryo-editing experiment.

“(Robin) Lovell-Badge said he cannot comment on the severity of the sentence, “but both prison and a fine would have been the likely penalties if someone had done what [He] did in the U.K.”

“The field of gene editing will carry the hashtag #CRISPRbabies in the mind of the public for a period longer than He’s sentence, and that is an additional crime he committed but was not formally charged with,” says Fyodor Urnov, a CRISPR researcher at University of California, Berkeley. “I hope that this stain will soon diminish relative to the positive impact that gene editing is likely to have in ethically treating existing disease.”

I have very mixed feelings about this outcome.

The actual CRISPR of human embryos to make babies may have harmed those 3 kids (we had heard of 2 babies and now the Chinese announcement confirms there were 3 babies born). He’s actions may also have opened the door to other scientists also recklessly following suit to try to make CRISPR babies. The serious punishment may tend to partially close that door for a while at least. He seems to have done quite a few other things wrong beyond the baby CRISPR’ing including potentially some acts of fraud to keep things a secret.

In addition to jail time and a fine, it appears that He and the other 2 collaborators may also face some kind of ban on human genetic research and/or funding.

Would that research ban and the monetary fine have been enough without the jail time?

In my predictions for 2019 for the stem cell and regenerative medicine field I expected some kind of harsh punitive measures by the Chinese government against He. I actually thought it’d be more severe than 3 years of jail time such as something like 10 years.

The secrecy of the Chinese trial and verdict also makes it difficult to have a clear sense of what went down and makes it harder for those of us on the outside to try to make sense of it. It’s hard to say what punishment might have been given here in the U.S., but it might not have been that different given the alleged fraud involved. What are some past cases of scientists going to jail in the U.S., U.K. or other countries for similar kinds of actions?

I feel like He needed some kind of serious punishment, but a scientist going to jail is a somber outcome. Maybe in the end it is “about right” all things considered even if it is at the same time a dark kind of end point.

I also keep thinking back to the 3 babies with the CRISPR-introduced mutations. We may never know if they’ve been harmed or if they pass along harmful mutations to future members of their families.

2 Comments

  1. The prison sentence is no more than lip service from the Chinese government in response to outrage from the west. If they had really wanted to regulate clinical research performed in Chinese institutes then the NMPA (Chinese FDA) would have stepped in earlier, and even before that, his research budget would have been blocked – who gave him clearance for the work at SUSTech?

    Anyways, the Chinese government can now boast the ability to edit the human germline and cannot be held accountable itself for the risks taken. They´ve learned a lot about arm´s length power play from the US in the last 40 years.

  2. We should be grateful that He Jiankui thrust forward the ethics debate to the point of (possible) action. Had he not done this openly we would still be doing nothing meaningful about the topic; academics waxing poetic in huddle circles called ‘meetings’ where no real power is listening. Scientists and lawmakers have sat on their hands, in separate rooms, while disruptive technology quite literally ‘disrupts’ society. Don’t we love it when it’s winning? Yet it’s so easy to see when it can go wrong. True power can always be used for good or bad.

    We have acted powerless at the behest of technological exponential growth, and we have been afraid to say anything that opposes the rapid advances bursting from our hands. CRISPR has been used toward human eugenics and moral outrage puts a man, who thought he did everything right, in prison. What do we do when it CRISPR is weaponized?

    We watch the tech industry and academia develop AI with tone-deaf disregard for the risks of introducing an untethered superior element, en masse, to our world.

    We wait for the damage before we consider the consequences.

    In 2020, we complain about plastic in the ocean, as if it wasn’t blindingly obvious the moment plastic became commonplace 60 years prior. Nobody listened to the critics back then.

    We keep electing elderly people, most beyond retirement age, whose generation cannot even comprehend the magnitude of modern advance — and to no wonder they do nothing while they bicker over classic partisan nonsense and grip the legacy of a world sitting firmly in a century past.

    All calls to action seem to fall on deaf ears until someone is hurt. We should be better than this, but we are not. Unfortunately, the story likely ends with no more monkeys jumping on the bed.

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