He Jianku has not been seen since declaring he had altered the genes of three embryos. Standards are being created to inform such decisions moving forward.
Chinese scientist He Jiankui was widely criticized in the scientific community for his role in creating the world’s first gene-edited babies – twin girls. He has remained out of public view for the past six months, and new information suggests that others may be interested in following suit and taking part in gene-editing.
A fertility clinic in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai emailed He to seek training in gene editing, according to Stanford University bioethicist Dr. William Hurlbut. “It reveals what eagerness there is out there to use this technology” and the need “for some sort of enforceable governance” of it, Hurlbut said.
Hurlbut, who He often consulted with, said He told him scientists from many other countries and families with inherited medical issues had messaged support in altering the genes of embryos to prevent or treat inherited disease.
Jennifer Doudna, a University of California, Berkeley, co-inventor of the CRISPR gene-editing tool that He used, said she has been contacted by others as well, and thinks the inquiries are legitimate, stating “they’re entirely credible.” Doudna said the field needs to focus on setting criteria for when gene-editing is appropriate and how to proceed.
“The technology is frankly just not ready for clinical use in human embryos,” although research in the area should continue, she said.
He claimed in November 2018 that he had altered the genes of twin girls at conception to “try to help them resist possible future infection with the AIDS virus.” Editing embryos is illegal in many areas of the world because it is risky, and the DNA changes can be passed to future generations.
Numerous scientists have condemned He’s work, and now others in the community are being closely scrutinized for potentially knowing He was doing and letting it continue. Stanford cleared Hurlbut and two other faculty members of any wrongdoing. Rice University is still looking into any involvement that He’s former adviser, physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem, may have had in the process.
“If you call [He] a rogue scientist who did this by himself, you miss the truth, and then you fail to see what’s wrong with the current structure for the global governance of science,” Hurlbut said.
The Chinese scientist has not been seen publicly since he spoke at a gene-editing conference in Hong Kong in November. Investigators said He “evaded supervision of his work and violated research norms out of a desire for fame.” There has been no word on how the twins are doing or the status of a second pregnancy He achieved with a gene-edited embryo. However, new research has suggested that the editing processs could significantly increase the twins’ risk of dying early.
Late last month, the United States National Academies of Medicine and Sciences and others formed an international commission to develop a “framework of scientific, medical, and ethical issues to be considered for any future attempts to edit eggs, sperm or embryos,” according to industry insiders. The World Health Organization (WHO) also has formed a panel on developing global standards for oversight of the field.
“Many people are still grappling with the pace at which the technology is advancing,” Doudna said. “It’s really quite astounding.”