Two Chinese scientists have published a comprehensive examination of the many flaws of He Jiankui, the now-disgraced Chinese scientist who attempted to genetically alter two infants using the cutting-edge CRISPR technique.
Although familiar with CRISPR, He did not possess the ability to definitely do what he claimed—make two children resistant to the HIV virus. In the days after He’s unusual scientific rollout on YouTube and in front of the World Summit of Human Gene Editing, concerned voices grew into an international chorus condemning He’s work as sloppy, improperly focused, and unethical.
“If this was a mouse,” geneticist Gaetan Burgio of Australia National University told PopMech at the time, “I would not be concerned. But we’re talking about kids.”
Although acting independently with American advisors, He’s work was seen as an embarrassment for the Chinese scientific community. He was a teacher at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, an area known for China’s most cutting-edge technology. Rumors spread that He might be executed, but those didn’t come to pass.
Rather, he was fired from his job, is kept under house arrest, and is now being denounced by his colleagues.
He’s “extremely irresponsible behavior violated the ethical consensus of scientists all over the world,” reads the paper’s abstract. “His presentation revealed a troubling lack not only of basic medical ethics but also of the requisite understanding of genetics and gene editing.”
The writers, Haoyi Wang of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hui Yang of the Shanghai Research Center for Brain Science and Brain-Inspired Intelligence, take a moment to describe their reaction to He’s bizarre announcement on November 25, 2018.
“As researchers working in the gene-editing field in China, we were completely shocked by this news,” they say. “It would appear that He had been doing this work in secret. As far as we know, He has not published noteworthy scientific papers in the gene-editing field and was not actively involved in the gene editing community in China. We were enraged by this extremely irresponsible misconduct, which clearly violated the regulatory and medical ethics of China and nations all over the world.
From there, a top-to-bottom evisceration of He’s work follows.
He’s work focused on editing C-C chemokine receptor type 5 genes, also known as CCR5. CCR5 is known to science as a “key player” in an HIV infection, but, as the scientists note, “gene editing in embryos is completely unnecessary to prevent HIV transmission to the fetus.” From the point of pure scientific inquiry, He’s work would not “provide benefits for the babies, while posing potentially serious risks on multiple fronts, which we will discuss next.”
Like others, the authors note that the quality of He’s science was “very poor and superficial.” He has never shown the world data he claimed to have in the Summit, presenting only a PowerPoint demonstration of his work. They note that “because his data have not been published on any platform as a research paper, the information shown on PowerPoint slides is insufficient for vetting.”
Before his work on human infants, He was experimenting with CRISPR techniques on monkeys. Having reviewed his work, the scientists found that he was met with a similar problem with each team: that of the allele mosaic. In genetics, a “mosaic” refers to two or more cell populations with differing genotypes (pieces of genetic material) in one individual. Any changes in a mosaic effects the other parts.
“From what we can tell from his presentation,” the scientists say, “despite various attempts, mosaicism remains a problem in the monkey embryo experiments.”
They conclude that “there is no sound scientific reason to perform this type of gene editing on the human germline, and that the behavior of He and his team represents a gross violation of both the Chinese regulations and the consensus reached by the international science community.”
If 2018 marked a dark year for CRISPR and genetics, scientists across the globe are hopeful the technology will be put to better use. In the U.S., clinical trials involving CRISPR have just begun in Pennsylvania.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics