He Jiankui says he’s back in the lab after prison for CRISPR babies

Earlier this year Chinese researcher He Jiankui finished his prison sentence. When I saw that news I wondered about the next chapter for him.

It seems he’s already back in the lab doing genetics research.

At least that’s according to a blog by He Jiankui himself. Can we trust that what he has written on his website is accurate including about his return to science? So far I don’t see any reason not to take it at face value. His apparent return to science raises larger questions such as about second chances.

He Jiankui
He Jiankui wrote that he’s back doing genetic research now in late 2022. Photo from He Jiankui.

What did He Jiankui do to end up in jail?

He served a three-year term for apparently unauthorized heritable CRISPR gene editing of human embryos (and perhaps even more so for associated misconduct) that he then used to produce three so-called “CRISPR babies.”

His goal for the germline gene editing was said to be to generate children who would be resistant to HIV infection. However, based on the little we know about how the experiments on the embryos went, it seems unlikely that these kids would be HIV resistant. They could also have a variety of damage to their genomes.

For that reason, they have very uncertain futures in terms of their health. It is possible that these children could have genetic diseases due to He Jiankui’s reckless use of CRISPR in the embryos.

The possible future children of these “CRISPR babies” could face health problems as well and so on with next generations. What He did was seriously wrong and almost certainly hurt other people. I’d also say it was somewhat damaging to the genome editing field, even if only temporarily.

He Jiankui presenting his work as the firestorm on the CRISPR babies erupted in 2018.

Again doing research? Meeting invites?

It is thus surprising in some ways that it seems He Jiankui apparently is again doing genetics research already, according to his blog and the site Pandaily. In the photo that is included in the article (see above) He looks about 10-15 years older than just four years ago.

I had mixed feelings about him getting a prison term and second chances are sometimes reasonable. However, at the same time the idea of him back in the research lab so soon is not entirely a comfortable one for me.

His story is complicated though. One question that was never adequately resolved was whether He had the okay from at least some Chinese governmental authorities to do the heritable gene editing but then got thrown under the bus alone when there was an international outcry.

What’s he going to do now research-wise?

According to He his new research lab:

“is engaged in research on affordable gene therapy, that is, treatment that is less than 100,000 yuan [$13,884] and affordable to patients. Gene therapy in Western countries often costs millions of dollars, which makes many families fall into poverty due to illness. With the support of social philanthropists, we will overcome three to five genetic diseases within two to three years to benefit families with rare diseases.”

I guess this focus is on gene therapies and on the surface it seems to be only somatic cells.

Looking ahead

The timeline here to “overcome” genetic diseases sounds wildly optimistic. Maybe he’s just being aspirational. In contrast to that, Pandaily has a very cautionary quoted translation from He’s blog:

“He Jiankui expressed his own opinion, writing, “Terry Horgan, the world’s first genetic disease patient who died of gene editing therapy, sounded the alarm for us! In the past three years, driven by capital and the grandiloquence of some scientists, ordinary people have produced many fantasies about gene editing. However, history tells us that when any new technology first appears, it is both an angel and a devil. Blind pursuit and rash advance of new technology will be punished by Heaven. Scientific research scholars should have awe of nature and technology, and move forward carefully with a mentality of treading on thin ice.”

I wonder if some of what he’s conveying here is related to his own decisions and actions.

The Pandaily article on He’s return to research also noted that he’s been invited to give talks recently on his past experiences. His invitations reportedly include one from the Global Observatory for Genome Editing and another from Oxford.

There’s an interesting letter that He shared from the Observatory about their rationales and goals for the meeting and their invitation to him. What do you think of the invitation?

I wonder what the future will hold for He Jiankui and his research.

Again, is this largely self-reporting on He’s return to science completely accurate?

We’ll have to follow this breaking story.

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