He Jiankui spent three years in prison for flouting the most basic medical and ethical regulations by creating the first babies born after being genetically edited to be immune to HIV.
In 2018, the researcher edited the genome of several human embryos in their early stages of development because he wanted to produce children who were not carriers of the disease. Thus, he managed to have genetically modified twin girls born in China free of HIV so that they could no develop AIDS, a disease suffered by their biological parents.
He carried out the experiment even knowing that there are safer methods to achieve this goal.
Despite the fact that the genome of one of the embryos contained unwanted errors, he went ahead with the experiment and implanted those embryos to achieve an IVF pregnancy. Since the birth of the twins in 2018 and another girl in 2019, nothing has been heard from them. China has taken care to protect their identities.
In 2019, He Jiankui was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for illegal medical practices, along with two collaborators. After leaving prison in 2022, he created the “Institute for Rare Disease Research.” In it he intends to investigate to cure genetic diseases in children and adults, but not embryos.
In order to finance his experiments, he intends to get several Chinese millionaires to donate 50 million yuan ($7.2 million). If he got that amount of money, he assures that he will cure genetic diseases in about three years.
This return to science raises questions about whether researchers who have engaged in scientific misconduct should be accepted into the scientific community.
Some gene editing experts believe that the tools used for germline editing are not yet safe for their use in humans, as they would introduce changes in DNA that would be passed on from generation to generation.
In 2022, the first clinical trials of CRISPR therapies were carried out, but in non-heritable modifications.
As for He Jiankui’s return to research, the vast majority of scientists believe that he should not be rehabilitated after having engaged in unethical practices with such serious consequences. In addition, they also express their concern for the girls’ health.
However, academics are divided, as evidenced by the fact that he has been invited to speak at the University of Oxford.
In the documentary Make people better by Cody Sheehy, which delves into the researcher’s background, it is explained that at least 20 people were aware of his experiments with CRISPR on human embryos.
Among those who knew that he was crossing the red lines of ethics in biomedicine were prestigious scientists, who did not warn of the dangers of experimentation on humans.
One of them helped him interview HIV-positive couples who wanted to participate in his experiment. A publicist even designed a campaign to publicize his milestone by publishing videos and scientific articles. The researchers who were part of his laboratory and those who got investors for his projects also helped him.
Despite this, no legal action has been taken against any of them.