He Jiankui proposes editing human embryos again

It wasn’t that long ago that Chinese scientist He Jiankui got out of jail. Why was he in there? For doing unauthorized human CRISPR to make heritably gene-edited humans.

He botched that and apparently forged some approvals to make it happen. The three children involved may have life-long health problems as a result.

I wrote more recently about how he seemed intent upon a scientific comeback of a sort since his release. Would he dare to dip his toes back into the arena of heritable human gene editing?

He Jiankui
He Jiankui is back doing genetic research. Photo from He Jiankui.

New He Jiankui effort raises some red flags

Now He Jiankui has gone right into the deep end by proposing to try to gene edit Alzheimer’s including via work in mice and editing non-viable human embryos.

He tweeted about his new plans a few days ago (see below).

The work is a long way from actual human beings but just the fact that He’s making this kind of plan is disturbing.

He plans to first do work in mice and then in non-viable human embryos. You can check out the scientific specifics in his document posted on Twitter, but it seems very unlikely to lead to anything remotely like success.

Since he’s focused on Alzheimer’s Disease now, it will take years just to do the mouse work.

With the non-viable human embryos, how would he know if he’s changed anything phenotypically that’s relevant to Alzheimer’s?

Risky business

My concerns include both the planned science and also He’s track record of poor decisions. Just a few months back, according to CNN, more than 200 Chinese scientists signed a letter condemning He’s behavior:

“In March, over 200 Chinese scholars released a statement in response to his public activities, including what they said was He’s “misleading marketing campaign” over his claimed research plans on rare disease.

They condemned He’s “attitude and refusal to reflect on his criminal actions of violating ethics and regulations of gene editing,” and called for regulatory authorities to launch a new investigation into He’s “alleged re‐violation of scientific integrity, ethical norms, laws and regulations.”

and from a bioethicist:

“As for the future of He’s research, Canadian bioethicist Françoise Baylis of Dalhousie University said numerous questions should be considered, from whether He has the requisite scientific expertise to test the hypothesis, to whether he can be trusted to follow the rules for research involving humans.

“It is possible for people to learn from their mistakes and to change their behavior … but many are concerned, however, that He Jiankui may not have learned from his past mistakes,” Baylis said.”

I agree with Françoise.

At some point is He going to go too far and get into hot water with the Chinese government again? I don’t think it’s that unlikely.

Where’s his research funding coming from?

Does he have any supervision from sensible mentors?

Someone might say he’s proposing high-risk, high-reward research but I’m not convinced he has what it takes to responsibly lead such a project. Further, such a project more likely feeds into heritable gene editing rather than somatic. Overall, this project has almost zero chance of a high reward and yet poses numerous risks.

2 thoughts on “He Jiankui proposes editing human embryos again”

    1. CCR5 has several known and perhaps other unknown functions so messing it up poses real risks. Even known CCR5 variants in this gene confer a higher risk from West Nile virus and flu. Keep in mind that the haphazard CCR5 mutations that he made in these kids are not necessarily the only changes that CRISPR made in their genomes as well.

      More info on their genomes and how their health is doing would help clarify things but they have rights to privacy too. It’s complicated.

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