He Jiankui is the first Chinese scientist in the world who changed the genetic code of two babies. He faced a lot of criticism from the scientific community for his work. However, his fame has now taken a weird turn. Since the release of the news, the scientist has been missing. Officials at his former workplace, Southern University of Science and Technology, denied all the claims that the Chinese government detained him. The officials said in a statement, “Right now nobody’s information is accurate, only the official channels are.” He did not allow any independent inspection of his work and decided to break the news through social media.
After the announcement, his work came under severe criticism both by ethical and scientific areas. Speaking at the International Human Genome Editing Summit, He claimed that his results had ‘leaked.’ Even though, the revelation of the results were a part of a very coordinated media release. During a 20 minute talk, He tried to justify his study to other scientists. He presented himself as a champion who is working against the discrimination of those with HIV. He said that he is proud of his work which targeted CCR5, which is a known pathway for the virus. The scientific community didn’t agree with his research based on the scientific and moral grounds.
Several scientists who listened to He’s speech started challenging his work with the two girls, Lulu and Nana. The most thorough breakdowns of He’s work came from Gaetan Burgio from Australia National University. Burgio said in an interview, “If you look into details. What they meant to target, they haven’t targeted. They targeted CCR5, which is correct, but they haven’t targeted the region known to show resistance to HIV.” According to Burgio, a mistake He made was that he didn’t recognize ‘allele mosaic.’ A mosaic refers to two or more cell populations with varying genotypes in one individual. Alleles are a crucial part of our genetic code with variations on DNA that allow for unique traits like eye color. Other than eye color, CCR5 also has a variety of other potential variations.
Burgio said that the lack of transparency in He’s work means that ‘we don’t know what has been done to the genes” of the two infants.’ There are also some significant problems with an important part of the study which is about the informed consent of the parents. The consent form which was signed by the parents has also come under severe criticism from other scientists who compared it to ‘a business form, of the kind that a company might use when subcontracting’ while not stating about the risks clearly. Burgio said, “If this were a mouse, I would not be concerned. But we’re talking about kids.”
When Burgio was asked about He’s motives, he said that it is evident that He wanted to be the first one to make this discovery. Burgio laughed at the question that perhaps He was genuine for his concern for HIV patients. He said that there are several safer ways to treat this disease. After the appearance at the summit, He has not been seen anywhere. The university where He was working and was on leave since February has also declined to have any knowledge of his work. He also found a collaborator in a professor from the school, Micheal Deem, who is a graduate of Rice University. The university also released a statement declaring that the work done on the kids “violates scientific conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with the ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University.”