2nd chances after big misconduct? He Jiankui, James Wilson, others

There have been rare instances like with scientist James Wilson where researchers were involved in what I would call major misconduct but somehow managed to bounce back. In a sense, they were given second chances in part by regulators but also by other scientists or supporters.

However, after extraordinary misconduct, especially contributing to the death or injury of other people, should the scientists involved get second chances?

James Wilson, Gene therapy
Gene therapy researcher James Wilson has successfully bounced back from early disaster.

He Jiankui tries to plant a redemption seed?

The question of second chances came to mind recently because CRISPR researcher He Jiankui, who committed misconduct on several levels while producing three children with heritably gene-edited genomes, appears to be trying to make a comeback in science. Some of his recent statements suggest he is intent on regaining international stature and perhaps pushing forward with gene therapy work.

Is that really a good idea? Who decides such things?

There is no authority in biomedical science for these kinds of situations. Here in the U.S., even government agencies like the FDA and the NIH typically only rarely hand out suspensions of research eligibility. When they do, the suspensions tend to be just a few years. Things seems similar in other countries. As a side note, interestingly the FDA does sometimes take the unusual step of permanent bans and has a black list. 

Part of my concern about He stems from the fact that his misguided CRISPR efforts led to the three children having altered genomes with unknown health consequences.

Damaged genomes.

Does he even fully take responsibility for that? I haven’t seen an indication that he does.

James Wilson and the death of Jesse Gelsinger

James Wilson is a gene therapy researcher at UPENN. He was ultimately responsible for the death of clinical trial participant Jesse Gelsinger. This NY Times article on Gelsinger’s death from 1999 is a tough read but important. The death was more immediate at that point.

Wilson and his team also put other participants at risk and there were additional adverse events. Wilson’s gene therapy clinical trial had many serious problems and apparently took shortcuts. The team was rushing it, arguably putting money or speed ahead of safety and the patients’ best interests. It seems Gelsinger was not informed of past participants who had negative outcomes.

It all came crashing down.

Wilson was temporarily banned from doing clinical trials by the FDA. This incident seriously damaged the whole gene therapy field for many years. The UPENN newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, has extensively covered Wilson’s career for the last twenty or so years. In 2001, author Ben Geldon argued that it was time for James Wilson to go after “a pattern of severe misconduct.” That didn’t happen.

Wilson’s bounce back

In fact, quite the opposite, somehow James Wilson was able to resurrect his career and is now by some measures more successful than ever. His work on AAV viruses as gene therapy delivery mechanisms has opened the door to many clinical trials. You can read about the Wilson Lab’s research.

You could even argue that his more recent work since the earlier disaster may save many lives.

Wilson got a second chance in part via a powerful mentor believing in him and funding his work.

More recently, Wilson has also faced new, extensive accusations of creating a toxic workplace at UPENN. In April of this year, The Daily Pennsylvanian published a deep dive into the troubles and it’s not a pretty picture including of UPENN leadership, which seems to do just about anything to defend him. The piece suggests that profit is the main priority, which was raised at the time of Gelsinger’s death too.

How will history ultimately judge Wilson and his second chance?

Some stem cell cases

Beyond James Wilson and He Jiankui we can see other examples of researchers who did or did not get second chances after things went terribly wrong. The STAP cell fiasco with a fake cell reprogramming protocol to make pluripotent stem cells caused damage on many levels. Where are the STAP cell scientists now? Some like first author Haruko Obokata didn’t get second chances. Others did. It’s not always clear why.

Hwang-woo Suk, who faked human stem cell cloning, has bounced back with a pet cloning business and other efforts. He just had a paper published on the experience of cloning a total of one thousand dogs.

It’s hard to say what the future holds for “stem cell surgeon” Paolo Macchiarini, whose clinical work led to several patient deaths. It wouldn’t shock me if he was doing research somewhere again.

Decisions on second chances

Part of second chances seems to come from the scientific community itself. If a researcher makes themselves useful and doesn’t cause too much future trouble, then they have a better chance of a bounce back.

However, there seem to be more random elements at work too like powerful advocates who help make second chances possible, institutional wagon-circling, and even journal decisions on retractions in some cases.

More broadly, this second chance question is a tough one and I don’t claim to have the answer. Every case is different so there’s not likely to be a universal answer.

I did a non-scientific poll on Twitter to ask about this and I’ve included the it above. Very few respondents selected an unequivocal “yes” to second chances, while almost half said “no”. That’s about what I would have predicted.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “2nd chances after big misconduct? He Jiankui, James Wilson, others”

  1. Inga Andersdotter

    As important as it is to talk about specific researchers, I would also like to see more focus on the money behind people like James Wilson and He Jiankui. These individuals did not fund themselves. Ironically, it seems that by putting profit first, the companies/funders that enabled these researchers actually destroyed the chances of profit that they had. Maybe they could be making money from treatments available at doctors’ offices right now if they had paid more attention to the science.

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