(AP) — Five years ago, scientist He Jiankui shocked his peers and the world with claims that he created the first genetically edited babies. Now, after serving three years in a Chinese prison for practicing medicine without a license, he faces obstacles and critics as he tries to re-enter science.
For months he’s been touting plans to develop affordable gene therapies for rare diseases, starting with the muscle-wasting condition Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He announced on social media last fall that he had opened a lab in Beijing. He spoke remotely about this new endeavor at an event in early February hosted by the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.
And last week, he announced to the press that he’d received a Hong Kong visa and might want to work in the financial hub. But Hong Kong officials revoked that visa hours later, saying false statements had been made and a criminal investigation would be launched.
The Associated Press has reached out to He several times by phone and email, but he has not agreed to an interview. He said on Twitter over the weekend that he will pause posting there to focus on his research. Others in the scientific world, meanwhile, are divided about his efforts at a comeback — with some expressing serious doubts.
“We have to be clear: He has no expertise in gene editing” and his previous experiment was “a total, total disaster,” said Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert who wrote a book on the case. "I understand maybe some of this is a play to rehabilitate his reputation ... But how can anyone think this is a good idea?”
Some scientists worry he may return to the sort of work he did before, which involved using a tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to genetically edit embryos, disabling a gene that allows HIV to enter cells. The idea was to try to make the children resistant to AIDS.
The gene editing tool is a powerful one that may lead to treatments for many diseases. The scientists who discovered it were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2020. But He's work was criticized across the globe because, by making edits to embryos, he was attempting changes that could be passed to future generations — potentially altering the course of human evolution. The work was also medically unnecessary and carried the risks of changing other genes.
It's unclear how the three children who grew from the embryos — twins known as Lulu and Nana and a third child known as Amy — are doing.
Given He's ambition,“I wouldn't be surprised that a few years down the line if the opportunity arises, that he would go back” to that sort of work, said Dr. Samira Kiani, a genetic engineer and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who produced a documentary on He’s story called “Make People Better."
But Benjamin Hurlbut, an expert in bioethics and biomedicine at Arizona State University who is in touch with He off and on, said “there's absolutely no reason” to believe he will do anything similar, and that He has the know-how and connections to build respectable projects in biotech.
“He’s done his time and he’s trying to start over,” Hurlbut said.
A REVEALING TALK
Kent sociologist Joy Zhang, an organizer of the U.K. event where He spoke, said most participants were scientists and academics based in China, and many arrived with open minds about him and his latest project.
“It was really shocking how shameless he was boasting about his gene therapy when he had very little substance to show, either scientifically or ethically,” Zhang said. “He proved that he’s not a misunderstood genius. He’s just a very egotistic opportunist.”