For the man behind the gene-edited babies, a difficult return to science End-shutdown

Five years ago, scientist He Jiankui shocked his peers and the world with claims that he created the first gene-edited babies. Now, after spending three years in a Chinese prison for practicing medicine without a license, he faces obstacles and criticism as he tries to re-enter science.

For months he has been touting plans to develop affordable gene therapies for rare diseases, starting with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a condition that weakens the muscles. She announced on social media last fall that she had opened a lab in Beijing. She spoke remotely about this new effort at an event in early February hosted by the University of Kent in the UK.

And last week, he announced to the press that he had received a Hong Kong visa and might want to work in the financial center. 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 contacted him several times by phone and email, but did not agree to an interview. He said on Twitter over the weekend that he would pause posting there to focus on his investigation. Meanwhile, others in the scientific world are divided over his efforts to return, with some expressing serious doubts.

“We have to be clear: He has no background in gene editing” and his previous experiment was “a total disaster,” said Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene-editing expert who has written a book on the case. “I understand that maybe some of this is a play to rehabilitate his reputation… But how can anyone think that’s a good idea?”

Some scientists worry that he could go back to the kind of work he did before, which involved using a tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to genetically edit embryos, turning off a gene that allows HIV to enter cells. The idea was to try to make children resistant to AIDS.

The gene editing tool is powerful and can lead to treatments for many diseases. The scientists who discovered it received the Nobel Prize in 2020. But He’s work was criticized around the world because, by editing embryos, he was attempting changes that could be passed on to future generations, potentially altering the course of human evolution. The work was also medically unnecessary and carried the risk of changing other genes.

It’s unclear how the three children who grew from the embryos, the twins known as Lulu and Nana and a third child known as Amy, are faring.

Given He’s ambition, “I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years, if the opportunity arises, he’s going back” to that kind of work, said Dr. Samira Kiani, a genetic engineer and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who produced a documentary on I’ve called the story “Make People Better.”

But Benjamin Hurlbut, a bioethicist and biomedicine expert at Arizona State University who is in contact with He from time to time, said there is “absolutely no reason” to believe he would do something similar, and that he has the knowledge and skills. connections to build respectable biotech projects.

“He’s done his time and he’s trying to start over,” Hurlbut said.


Kentish sociologist Joy Zhang, organizer of the UK event at which he spoke, said most of the participants were China-based scientists and academics, with many arriving open-minded about him and his latest project.

“It was really shocking how shamelessly he bragged about his gene therapy when he had very little substance to show for it, either scientific or ethical,” Zhang said. “He Proved that he is not a misunderstood genius. He’s just a very selfish opportunist.”

During his 25-minute presentation, he spent most of his time explaining basic science, discussing his Duchenne research for less than two minutes, according to a scathing report Posted by event organizers. That included sharing their goal of raising 50 million Chinese yuan through charity (about $7.3 million) and starting clinical trials by March 2025.

“We have exposed that there is little substance” behind He’s ambitious gene therapy plans for Duchenne, according to the report. “We were concerned that he could endanger another vulnerable population if his new venture goes unchecked.”

The organizers said they invited He because China had not had an open discussion about CRISPR technology and ethics since its surprising announcement in 2018. They were disappointed that He did not speak about his recent past. A day earlier, he had withdrawn from a planned talk at Oxford University and said on Twitter that he was not ready to do that.

Kiani said that inviting He to speak at such events is a good idea because the scientific community can communicate what is right and wrong, and listen to his plans. “It would be very naive of us to think that if we don’t have any conversations with him, he’ll just walk away,” he said.

After He’s presentation, a fellow scientist pressed him on whether he thought so-called “hereditary human genome editing” should be banned. The question has become especially timely, experts say, as the UK’s fertility watchdog agency pushes for a review of fertility laws and some fear it could eventually lead to legalization of the practice.

He wouldn’t answer.


Cultural anthropologist Eben Kirksey, a fellow at Oxford University’s St. Cross College, who wrote the book “The Mutant Project,” said he worries what He’s past actions might portend about the future. For example, Kirksey said that he misled the public about the health of the twins in the gene-editing experiment; Kirksey revealed in his book that they were born at 31 weeks gestation by emergency C-section.

Kirksey said: He’s quest for fame and potentially profitable breakthroughs again threatens to get in the way of “good, stable, well-thought-out science.”

In addition to Duchenne’s research, he said last year on the Weibo social media platform that he was seeking funding from the Chinese government to develop an advanced type of machine that creates synthetic DNA that could be used to store information. A small piece of synthetic DNA can store vast amounts of data.

His proposal for that project included J. William Efcavitch, a science officer for a life sciences company in California, as science adviser. Efcavitch, who did not respond to requests for comment, served on the scientific advisory board of Direct Genomics, a sequencing company he co-founded before the gene-editing scandal.

Hurlbut said those plans would not attract much attention were it not for the scandal.

“There is something off about the singular concern for the individual, the ‘mad scientist’ type of narrative, when what he did was embedded in a much larger network,” Hurlbut said shortly after the Weibo post.

Something similar will happen again, experts said, unless the global scientific community changes the competitive culture that pushes many into a race to be first, and unless people ask: Should we rush just because we can?

Saying he went rogue points his finger elsewhere, Hurlbut said, “instead of asking: What did this come from? Do we have anything to do with this?”


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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