Monday, December 17, 2018

Has Human Gene Editor Been Edited Himself?

Dr. Jiankue He of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, claims to have used a gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the genes of twin girls in order to make the babies resistant to the AIDS virus carried by their father.  When news of his experiment leaked out, scientists and governments around the world attacked him for doing what is widely viewed as an unethical experiment.  After Dr. He tried to defend himself at a Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong at the end of November, the president of Dr. He's university reportedly collected him and took him back to Shenzhen, and his whereabouts are presently unknown.  He is no longer answering his phone, his lab has been shut down, a company he founded has lost contact with him, and one report says he has been placed under house arrest. 

First, a little background.  It will be very little because biology and bioengineering is not my forte, to say the least.  CRISPR is an acronym for some DNA sequences that are found widely in cells, and these sequences are used with an enzyme in a technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to edit DNA.  So in the last fifteen years or so, we have gone from reading the human genome (the goal of the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003) to editing the genes of human beings—at least if Dr. He has done what he says he's done.

From a scientific point of view, his claims remain unsubstantiated, because he has not yet published anything about this particular experiment in a peer-reviewed journal.  He apparently intended to do so when news of it leaked out, and Dr. He decided to post information about it to forestall rumors.  What he posted did a lot more than that.

There's enough questionable ethical practices in this incident for several columns.  The most prominent one is whether Dr. He did wrong in deliberately manipulating the gene sequence of human embryos and then implanting them back in the mother to be born.  Nothing has been said about how many unsuccessful tries were made along these lines, but if this experiment was like others, the yield rate was probably very small. 

Besides that question, there is the problem of talking about controversial experiments prior to peer review.  We still don't have any verification as to whether Dr. He really did what he said, although he has a good track record in the field of previous genetics research in less controversial areas.  But given the nature of his situation, Dr. He probably did the least bad thing in releasing more information rather than just letting rumors run wild.

What is most interesting to me is the way the government of China has reacted to the firestorm of controversy.  Up to now, Dr. He has been treated like a golden boy, being allowed to study abroad at Rice and Stanford, receiving a coveted Thousand Talents Award to set up his own lab, and founding or being involved in six companies focused on commercializing aspects of his research.  Earlier this year he announced that he was taking a leave from his university position to concentrate on his commercial activities. 

But once news leaked of his alleged CRISPR/Cas9 experiment with the twins and criticisms began to mount, the weather changed fast.  China currently has no inconvenient encumbrances, such as the legal concept of due process, to delay rapid and decisive action on the part of its government.  So when someone high up in the power structure decided that Dr. He was no longer an asset, his fate was sealed.  It may be months or years before we find out exactly what has happened to him, but for now, his high-flying career appears to be at an end.  What the government gave, the government can take away, and apparently has.

There is an odd parallel here between what the Chinese government has done to Dr. He, and what Dr. He has reportedly done to the twins.  For years, he enjoyed the freedom to study at the best universities in the world, to follow his investigations into the secrets of the genome, and to speculate on commercial applications of his ideas.  But in a matter of weeks, it's been taken away, at least for the time being.

At least Dr. He had the opportunity to judge whether his experiment might land him in hot water.  He may have judged wrong, but he was free to refrain as well as to go ahead.  The twins—referred to in news reports only as Lulu and Nana—have had no choice whatsoever.  From the time they were born, they became participants for life in an experiment that was not of their choosing.  If what Dr. He claims to have done is true, they are the first human beings on Earth whose intrinsic genetic makeup came about not only through the volition of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors stretching back before the dawn of human history, but also through the deliberate mechanical technology of CRISPR/Cas9. 

Is this a tragedy?  A lot of people seem to think so.  Judging from the swiftness of the negative reactions heaped on Dr. He's head, most of them arose from what bioethicist Leon Kass calls the "yuck factor."  Some ideas and actions are just intuitively revolting to most people, and fiddling with a human embryo's genes fall into this category.  Given the magnitude of the opprobrium, the government of China saw a threat to their hoped-for reputation as a leader in rapidly advancing scientific fields such as biotechnology, and removed Dr. He from public (and maybe even private) view.  One researcher going a bit too far is disposable.  But China's long-term plans in this area are not known.

The more basic question raised by this research, and one that has not been addressed much so far in news reports on it, is whether human life is really distinct, set apart, or holy compared to other life.  If it is, then a whole array of things that are now legal and even praised in some circles, ranging from mix-and-match in-vitro fertilization to abortion, are highly questionable, to say the least.  If it isn't—if playing with human genes is no more harmful than what the Jesuit priest Gregor Mendel did to his bean plants to figure out the basics of genetics over a century ago—then I would ask, what's the big deal?  Once you've gotten over the shock of novelty, human gene editing will fade into the background and become just another way we mess with ourselves technologically.  I hope that never becomes the case, but unless we use this controversy to open up a wider inquiry into what the limits of biotechnology should be, I'm afraid we'll look back on Dr. He's case and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Sources:  The Australian Broadcasting Company posted a report about Dr. He's disappearance at  I also referred to a report of theirs on the experiment itself at 

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