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Wall Street Journal: Dr. Jiankui He, the Man Who Edited China Embryos, Was a Product of the System

publication date: May 10, 2019
author/source: Richard Daverman, PhD

In a deeply researched Wall Street Journal article, Preetika Rana provides extraordinary depth into the story of Dr. Jiankui He, the man who announced last November he had used Crispr-Cas9 gene editing to alter human embryos in eight women. Dr. He was widely condemned at the time for the first-in-human experiment, and is probably now imprisoned by China authorities. But Ms. Rana told ChinaBio® Today, "Dr. He was a product of a system that encourages breaking scientific and social barriers, with rewards coming first." She continued, "As one of my sources says in the story: 'Of course, he made his own choices. But he was a product of his environment,' Arizona University’s Dr. Hurlbut said of Dr. He. 'The narrative of a rogue scientist excuses the rest of science from having played a role. That’s just not true.'" Ms. Rana has kindly provided a free link for ChinaBio Today readers to access the Wall Street Journal front page article (see article).

The story is well known. A young, relatively unknown China scientist announces at a scientific meeting that he has used Crispr-Cas9 gene editing to alter human embryos in eight women. Their partners had HIV and the couples wanted to protect their children from the disease. Although the scientist, Dr. Jiankui He, expected to be praised for his breakthrough research, he was universally condemned for moving too far, too fast, using a risky procedure with unknown consequences. He was portrayed as a man with a need to make a name for himself, no matter the danger to others.

Dr. He was certainly ambitious, and he wanted to be the first to conduct the gene editing experiment on humans. He talked openly with colleagues about his plans. But he faked a blood test for one of the fathers to implant the embryos, aware his HIV status in China would disqualify him from participating in fertility treatment. The hospital where the twin girls were edited and implanted was kept in the dark, agreeing to participate in the experiment only after they were born. It backdated their approval to appear as though it had known all along.

Ms. Rana's article provides much greater depth to the newspaper stories that appeared at the time of Dr. He's announcement, showing wider complicity for Dr. He's experiment. She said in a text with ChinaBio® Today, "I spent over two months reporting this story--some people spoke to me at great personal risk, and for that I am eternally grateful."

In doing her research, Ms. Rana found that Dr. He was close to at least three non-China researchers. In fact, he had originally put the name of Dr. Michael Deem as a co-author on the paper about the experiment submitted to the journal Nature. Dr. Deem, a Rice University biochemical and genetic-engineering professor, had been Dr. He's PhD advisor at Rice. Dr. Deem also appears as a non-speaking visitor in a video of a meeting with parents who volunteered for the trial.

Dr. He was also in regular contact with Dr. Craig Mello, a University of Massachusetts molecular biologist who won a Nobel prize in 2006 for his work with RNA interference. Dr. Mello was a board member of Dr. He's gene sequencing company, DirectGenomics. Dr. He kept Dr. Mello informed of his progress with his gene editing experiment, while promising to keep Dr. Mello's name from being associated with the project, another example of Dr. He's recognition that the project posed a moral question.

When it became clear that Dr. He had actually begun the project, Dr. Mello asked Dr. He not to send him any more emails.

Ms. Rana shows that Dr. He's advisors warned him the scientific reaction to the human gene editing might be negative, but they did not tell him to stop his work.

A patriotic person, Dr. He felt China should be home to the first human gene editing experiments, a recognition of the progress of China science. And he saw a real need: the males in the couples had HIV, making any children potentially vulnerable. Although a simple embryo wash would be a solution in most places, it wasn't available to these parents, who were ostracized because of their infections.

In Ms. Rana's telling of Dr. He's story, he seems focused on the potential therapeutic advantages of Crispr-Cas9, but not particularly worried about the possible negative consequences. Ambition, greed, national pride, altruism and probably other forces played a part in his moral calculus, blinding him to some extent. Dr. He did not expect the universal rejection that his dramatic announcement brought on him.

Once it was clear that the scientific community did not condone Dr. He's work, he became a rogue scientist, a convenient scapegoat. Ms. Rana shows he wasn't that isolated. It's a fascinating story.

Disclosure: none.


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