First Opinion CRISPR babies scientist He Jiankui should not be villainized — or headed to prison By Josiah Zayner
January 2, 2020
He Jiankui is reflected in a glass panel as he works at a computer at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province. Illustration: Dom Smith/STAT; Photo: AP
W hen I saw the news that He Jiankui and colleagues had been sentenced to three years in prison for the first human embryo gene editing and implantation experiments, all I could think was, “How will we look back at what they had done in 100 years?”
When the Chinese scientist described his research and revealed the births of gene edited twin girls at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in late November 2018, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning in Oakland, Calif., watching it. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep for a few days and couldn’t stop thinking about his achievement.
This was the first time a viable human embryo was edited and allowed to live past 14 days, much less the first time such an embryo was implanted and the baby brought to term.
The majority of scientists were outraged at the ethics of what had taken place, despite having very little information on what had actually occurred.
Related: The CRISPR shocker: How genome-editing scientist He Jiankui rose from obscurity to stun the world To me, no matter how abhorrent one views the research, it represents a substantial step forward in human embryo editing. Now there is a clear path forward that anyone can follow when before it had been only a dream.
He Jiankui’s work has been subjected to strong and sometimes vicious criticism. The big unknown is whether the children born from it will experience any harmful effects, though there is no evidence to lead us to suspect that they will.
Even after He’s work was made public, the U.S. did not create any laws directly outlawing human embryo editing and implantation. The only thing standing in the way of doing this is gaining FDA approval for an investigational new drug application. Current federal funding guidelines prevent the FDA from approving such experimentation, but how long will it be until that changes? Most certainly less than 100 years.
Let’s be honest, though. The FDA doesn’t need to approve these experiments as most countries in the world do not have laws against human embryo editing. A scientist and embryologist in Russia has proclaimed he is working on editing embryos for implantation — meaning that you are just a $500 plane flight from embryo editing being legal.
I imagine that the scientists, medical doctors, and biotechnologists reading this essay will almost unanimously proclaim that He Jiankui will never be viewed in a positive way. What they fail to see is that societal ethics change, especially over long time frames. When the outrage has faded with the passage of time, what is left?
Trending Now: The maddening saga of how an Alzheimer’s ‘cabal’ thwarted progress toward a cure for decades As long as the children He Jiankui engineered haven’t been harmed by the experiment, he is just a scientist who forged some documents to convince medical doctors to implant gene-edited embryos. The 4-minute mile of human genetic engineering has been broken. It will happen again.
The academic establishment and federal funding regulations have made it easy to control the number of heretical scientists. We rarely if ever hear of individuals pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of science.
The rise of the biohacker is changing that.
A biohacker is a scientist who exists outside academia or an institution. By this definition, He Jiankui is a biohacker. I’m also part of this community, and helped build an organization to support it.
Such individuals have much more freedom than “traditional” scientists because scientific regulation in the U.S. is very much institutionally enforced by the universities, research organizations, or grant-giving agencies. But if you are your own institution and don’t require federal grants, who can police you? If you don’t tell anyone what you are doing, there is no way to stop you — especially since there is no government agency actively trying to stop people from editing embryos.
Related: ‘I propose that we grow up a little bit’: Biohackers grapple with when to reject mainstream science — and when to embrace it The level of gene-editing sophistication on a budget is increasing rapidly. People are already editing human cells using a $150 inverted microscope without negative-pressure fume hoods and CO2 incubators. The requirements of embryo injection are minimal: a microinjector, micropipette, and microscope. All of these can be purchased on eBay and assembled for a few thousand dollars. Or if you have $43,500, just buy this “IVF ready” setup on eBay. You can practice embryo injection using zebrafish or other eggs or embryos that are readily available online.
What about the gene editing part? If companies like Synthego won’t sell you the Cas9 protein, you can easily purify it and make your own guide RNA for a few hundred dollars. The hardest thing to obtain would be human embryos, but with no laws against buying and selling them, a few emails is all it would take. CNY Fertility sells donor embryos for $1,000 each, and that doesn’t even include bulk pricing. A few thousand dollars for sequencing and screening and that’s it.
You can probably have the embryo transferred to a human by a medical doctor in the U.S. if you don’t tell him or her what you’ve done, or you can do it in another country. Embryo transfer itself doesn’t require any sophisticated equipment, so maybe someone could DIY that also.
In other words, not much is stopping people from doing embryo editing and implantation. So it won’t be long until the next human embryo is edited and implanted.
In the next 100 years, thousands of edited embryos will be implanted and become children. I believe that embryo editing and implantation will someday be viewed much as how IVF is viewed today. When a human embryo being edited and implanted is no longer interesting enough for a news story, will we still view He Jiankui as a villain?
I don’t think we will. But even if we do, He Jiankui will be remembered and talked about more than any scientist of our day. Although that may seriously aggravate many scientists and bioethicists, I think he deserves that honor.
Josiah Zayner is CEO of The ODIN, a company that teaches people how to do genetic engineering in their homes.
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