Unethical Gene Editing Triggers Public Condemnation

On November 28th, Dr. He Jiankui announced, at an international human genome editing conference in Hong Kong, that he has created the world’s first genetically edited human babies. His claims caused international outcry. “If true, this experiment is monstrous,” said Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford. Nobel laureate David Baltimore stated, “there has been a failure of self-regulation in the scientific community.”

Dr. He received his PhD at Rice University in Texas and worked as a post-doc at Stanford University in California with the gene-editing tool CRISPR, that was created in the United States. Dr. He, an elite biologist, was later recruited back to China from the United States as part of the Chinese government’s “Thousand Talents Plan.” In a November 2018 publication of MIT Technology Review, He’s work was described as, “A daring effort…to create the first children whose DNA has been tailored using gene editing.”

In 2015, reports from Chinese scientists of editing the genomes of human embryos triggered heated scientific discussion. Professor George Daley of Harvard Medical School commented, “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.” Despite international concerns, Chinese researchers have continued using CRISPR technology.

Dr. He’s workplace, the Southern University of Science and Technology, Shenzhen, China likely recognized the risk of international condemnation and has since distanced itself from the researcher stating, “His conduct in utilizing CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos has seriously violated academic ethics and codes of conduct.” However, the university might not be as innocent as claimed as the consent form used for the study listed the university as a funder of the experiments and hospital executive, Lin Zhitong, was interviewed on camera praising He’s research. Lack of transparency makes it unclear if Dr. He’s claims are true or not and whether the university was aware of the nature of his work.

The global outcry has also resulted in action by the Chinese government. Within two months of the public announcement of his human embryo gene manipulation, Chinese state media described Dr. He as having “seriously violated” state laws in pursuit of “personal fame and fortune.” The Chinese government has also distanced itself from his research by stating that he evaded supervision, manipulated an ethical review, and blamed him for using inadequate gene editing methods on human embryos.

Given that Dr. He’s research was previously supported and condemnation came only after international dissent, the question arises as to whether Dr. He is a perpetrator or a scapegoat. He is likely not the only violator of medical ethics in a country with a dismal history of compliance with internationally accepted ethics. For instance, over the last 12 years, investigators have repeatedly alerted the international community to the systematic, large scale forced organ harvesting from living prisoners of conscience in China, an abominable violation of internationally accepted ethical standards for organ transplantation.