Controversial Chinese Scientist He Jiankui Back With New Gene-Editing Proposal

Controversial Chinese Scientist He Jiankui Back With New Gene-Editing Proposal

The Controversy of He Jiankui's Gene-Editing Experiments on Human Embryos

In 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui shocked the world by announcing that he had created the first gene-edited babies using CRISPR-Cas9 technology. He claimed that he had modified the CCR5 gene in human embryos to make them resistant to HIV infection. His experiment sparked global outrage and condemnation from the scientific community, as well as legal and ethical repercussions. In this article, we will explore the background, motivation, methods, and consequences of He Jiankui's controversial gene-editing research on human embryos.

He Jiankui was an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. He had received his PhD in biophysics from Rice University in the US, and had worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. He had also founded several biotechnology companies, including Direct Genomics, which focused on developing gene-sequencing technologies.

He Jiankui was interested in applying CRISPR-Cas9 technology to human embryos, a technique that allows precise and targeted editing of DNA. CRISPR-Cas9 had been used successfully in animal and plant models, as well as in human cells in culture, but its use in human embryos was highly controversial and regulated. Many countries, including China, had banned or restricted the implantation of gene-edited embryos into women, due to the potential risks and ethical issues involved.

He Jiankui believed that gene-editing could offer a way to prevent or cure genetic diseases, such as HIV infection. He targeted the CCR5 gene, which encodes a protein that HIV uses to enter human cells. Some people have natural mutations in CCR5 that make them resistant to HIV infection. He Jiankui wanted to create human embryos with similar mutations using CRISPR-Cas9, and then implant them into women who wanted to have children with their HIV-positive partners.


He Jiankui said that his motivation for conducting his gene-editing experiment was to help families who were affected by HIV infection. He said that he wanted to offer them a new option to have healthy children who would not inherit or contract HIV from their parents. He said that he was inspired by stories of scientific pioneers who faced challenges and criticism for their breakthroughs, such as Edward Jenner, who developed the first vaccine, and Robert Edwards, who pioneered in vitro fertilization (IVF).

He Jiankui also said that he was influenced by a comment made by a senior scientist from an elite American university at a closed-door meeting hosted by Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of CRISPR-Cas9, at the University of California, Berkeley, in January 2017. The scientist said: "Many major breakthroughs are driven by one or a couple of scientists ... by cowboy science." He Jiankui interpreted this as an encouragement to pursue his risky and ambitious project. He said: "You need a person to break the glass." He also said: "I firmly believe that what I am doing is to promote the progress of human civilization. History will stand on my side."


He Jiankui recruited seven heterosexual couples who wanted to have children using IVF. The men were all living with HIV, while the women were not. He Jiankui took sperm and eggs from the couples, performed IVF with them, and then edited the genomes of the resulting embryos using CRISPR-Cas9. He targeted the CCR5 gene and tried to introduce mutations that would disable it. He then selected some of the edited embryos for implantation into the women's uteruses.

He Jiankui did not obtain proper ethical approval or informed consent from the couples or from his university for his experiment. He also did not follow the international guidelines or regulations for gene-editing research on human embryos. He did not report his experiment to any official authorities or journals until after he had announced it to the public.

He Jiankui announced his experiment in a video posted on YouTube on November 25, 2018. He claimed that two twin girls, Lulu and Nana, had been born healthy and normal after being gene-edited as embryos. He also revealed that another woman was pregnant with another gene-edited baby at that time.


He Jiankui's announcement triggered an immediate backlash from the scientific community and the public around the world. Many scientists condemned his experiment as unethical, irresponsible, reckless, and dangerous. They pointed out that his experiment posed many potential risks and harms to the gene-edited babies and their future offspring, such as unintended off-target effects, mosaic mutations, immune problems, reduced life span, and loss of genetic diversity. They also argued that his experiment violated the basic principles of human dignity, rights, and justice, as he had manipulated the genomes of human beings without their consent or knowledge, and had created irreversible changes that would affect future generations.

He Jiankui was also criticized for his lack of transparency, oversight, and peer review for his experiment. He did not publish his results in any scientific journal or share his data or methods with other researchers. He did not disclose his funding sources or his conflicts of interest. He did not consult with any independent experts or ethical committees before conducting his experiment. He also did not follow the established norms and standards for communicating scientific discoveries to the public and the media.

He Jiankui faced legal and disciplinary actions from the Chinese government and his university for his experiment. He was placed under investigation and house arrest by the authorities. He was fired from his university and banned from conducting any further research. He was also fined three million yuan ($430,000) and sentenced to three years in prison for violating a government ban on gene-editing human embryos. Two of his collaborators, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, were also convicted and sentenced to lower terms.

The fate of the gene-edited babies and their families remains unclear. The Chinese government said that it was keeping the babies under medical observation and providing them with proper care. However, there has been no official confirmation or update on their health status or whereabouts since their birth. There has also been no independent verification or validation of He Jiankui's claims or results by other scientists.


He Jiankui's gene-editing experiment on human embryos was a controversial and unprecedented event that raised many scientific, ethical, social, and legal questions and challenges. It exposed the gaps and weaknesses in the governance and regulation of gene-editing research on human embryos, both in China and globally. It also highlighted the need for more public engagement and education on the potential benefits and risks of gene-editing technology, as well as the ethical values and principles that should guide its use. He Jiankui's experiment also sparked a debate on the future of human genome editing, and whether it should be used for enhancement or therapy, for individual or collective good, for innovation or precaution.


(1) He Jiankui affair - Wikipedia.
(2) Controversial Chinese Scientist He Jiankui Back With New Gene-Editing Proposal.
(3) Chinese scientist He Jiankui proposes controversial gene-editing research on embryos.
(4) Controversial Chinese scientist He Jiankui proposes new gene editing research.
(5) China jails 'gene-edited babies' scientist for three years - BBC.
(6) Dissecting the CRISPR-baby stories | MIT Technology Review.


Why is He Jiankui so controversial?

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who sparked global outrage in 2018 when he revealed that he had created the first gene-edited children, has put forward a new proposal for modifying human embryos that he claims could help aid the “aging population.”

What are the issues with He Jiankui's experiment?

He clearly outlined the five widely acknowledged major risks involved: the limits of animal models, the danger of off-target effects, mosaicism, risks to embryonic and fetal development, and the possibly harm to future generations and the human gene pool.

What happened to Jiankui gene Edited babies?

Now, the disgraced gene-editing scientist, who was imprisoned in China for three years for the unethical practices, tells the South China Morning Post that all three children are doing well. “They have a normal, peaceful, and undisturbed life,” He says. “This is their wish, and we should respect them.

Why was Jiankui experiment unethical?

He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who claimed to have edited the genomes of twin baby girls in a heritable way—and earned widespread condemnation for conducting a risky procedure with little potential benefit—deliberately sidestepped regulations, dodged oversight, and used fake ethical review documents in hopes of ...

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