The Story of He Jiankui, Now Out of Jail After Editing the DNA of Unborn Babies

Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui, who claimed he had used gene-editing techniques in unborn children, was released from a prison in China last week after serving a three-year sentence. reports,

He was jailed in late 2019 for violating medical regulations after announcing his work at a conference last year.

According to China’s Xinhua news agency at the time, a court found that he and his colleagues had “overpassed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research.”

There are many unknowns after his work, but he claimed that he used a gene-editing process known as CRISPR-Cas9 to rewrite the genome of embryos before babies were born.

The purpose of doing this, he said, was to immunize them with HIV by modifying a certain gene called CCR5. Twin sisters, known as Lulu and Nana, as well as a third child, known as Amy, were later born to volunteer parents who participated in the research in 2018. He added that Lulu and Nana were born healthy, though their status remains a mystery today. ,

He Jiankui as seen at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November 2018. Jiankui’s genome editing research quickly became controversial.

problem with crisp

CRISPR-Cas9 is sometimes described as acting like molecular scissors that can cut strands of DNA at certain locations within the genome. Scientists can then introduce changes to the DNA in the repair phase.

A long-standing problem in gene editing is targeting DNA precisely. Previous editing techniques that used chemicals or radiation had no control over where mutations could occur in the genome.

Although CRISPR has improved in this regard, it is not perfect. Dr. Kiran Musunuru, professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Genetic and Epigenetic Origins of Disease Program, believes the scissor resemblance increases the accuracy of CRISPR.

“It’s kind of like if you accidentally tear off a page, [you can] Tape it, but often the edge of the tear is rough. It doesn’t match exactly and you lose some words or you lose some letters; You obscure the meaning of the paragraph.

“So, if you look at it in those words, it’s really crude, and has potentially bad consequences. So again, using this analogy of making a tear, let’s say you accidentally tear up an entire page. Well, it could be Gnome, too.

“So he Jiankui was trying to turn off a gene called CCR5. We know that people who naturally have this gene turned off are more resistant to HIV infection, and so she wants to have such children.” who, when they grow up, will be resistant to HIV infection.

“That was the whole premise, and he was using this crude version 1.0 of CRISPR. It was basically injecting it into the embryo and hoping it would turn off the gene and cause no problems. “

A stock photo shows a strand of DNA with the portion highlighted. CRISPR/Cas9 is a medical technology capable of editing DNA.
Andy / Getty


Jiankui’s project was not widely known even before the International Genome-Editing Summit in Hong Kong in late 2018.

Before the summit took place, he reached out to journalists through a publicist, offering them a scientific manuscript outlining his work that he was planning to submit to a scientific journal. Not knowing what to mean by this, the journalists turned to experts for their insights.

Musunuru was one of the experts who looked at these early manuscripts. He said he was shocked by what he saw. “My reaction was very visceral, very upset, you know, screaming in my office, ‘What on earth has happened?’

“I realized it really was. He did exactly what he claimed he did; these were babies born from embryos that had been edited with CRISPR. And I knew the reason Because when I looked at the data, I immediately saw evidence that things had gone wrong—there were off-target edits, as I described earlier; that the embryo had become a patchwork of editing, so some cells were edited. , were nothing else and different cells had different edits. I could see that immediately looking at the data in the manuscript.

“I still don’t quite know what [He] understood the implications of his own data … it was as if he didn’t understand what his own data was telling him.”

Bound by a confidentiality agreement, Musunuru could not publicly announce his concerns for several days. But with only a few days to go before the Hong Kong summit, Antonio Regalado, a reporter for MIT Technology Review, Details of He’s work viewed on the Clinical Trials website. The story broke prematurely, and his work suddenly came into the limelight.

they issued Youtube video In which he said that the gene experiments were successful. “The gene surgery worked safely,” he said, adding that the children’s genes were sequenced before and after birth to monitor for any changes. “No gene was changed except one to prevent HIV infection,” he said.

Despite his claims, his work was widely condemned and the Chinese government opened an investigation. xinhua news agency informed of That an investigation by China’s Health Commission found it had “deliberately avoided inspection.”

As of January 2019, he was fired from the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen City. By December of that year, a court in Shenzhen Found guilty Fake “illegal medical practices” and ethical review documents.

The fate of gene-edited children

Joy Zhang, a sociologist and founding director of the Center for Global Science and Epistemic Justice at the University of Kent, chaired a meeting in March of this year to discuss the ethical obligations to protect three children, who will continue to live in their lives. impressed by the work. The meeting formed the basis for the subsequent report.

“As far as I know, there is very little public information about the two families and three children,” Zhang said. newsweek, “But we hope the report will help create social conditions for them to lead good and autonomous lives.”

He Jiankui
He Jiankui showing a slide at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. He was jailed in 2019 after gene editing three unborn children.
Getty Images

Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, spoke to him shortly after news of his experiments surfaced and criticized the work. He also attended Zhang’s meeting earlier this year.

Lowell-Badge said that the three girls influenced by her work should grow up in as normal an environment as possible. “It would be a very good justification to give any special label to any of the three girls, who are the products of He Jiankui’s experiment,” he said. newsweek, “We don’t do this for babies born after any IVF procedure such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and we all have unique ‘mutations’ that occur during the development of the egg, sperm, and early embryo that gave birth to us.” .

“It is far more important that they are allowed to grow up in a normal and caring environment and that they are not subject to anything but a watchful eye – which is something that happens with all children. If they have a deleterious mutation, they may need some special care and counseling – but again, this is something that any caring society should take for granted.”

The second question is what will he do next? Musunuru doesn’t think any further tests on the scale of his previous work are of much concern. “Given his notoriety and possibly the close monitoring of his government, I don’t think anyone is concerned that he will pick up Jiankui from where he left off,” he said.

“It is worth noting that he never had a medical license, as he was not a physician and had no medical training – which is certainly one of the major problems with his ‘diagnostic testing’. Was.” I also expect that the Chinese institutional ethics committees charged with approving clinical trials will have them much more frequently than in the past.”

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