He Jiankui

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He Jiankui
He Jiankui (cropped).jpg
Born1984 (age 34–35)
Other namesJiankui He[1][2]
Alma materUniversity of Science and Technology of China (B.S., 2006)
Rice University (Ph.D., 2010)
Known forClaiming to have conducted the first genome-editing experiments on embryos that were implanted and brought to term
Scientific career
InstitutionsSouthern University of Science and Technology
Doctoral advisorMichael W. Deem
Other academic advisorsStephen Quake[3]
Chinese name
Simplified Chinese贺建奎

He Jiankui ([ˈxɤ̂ ˌtɕjɛ̂nkʰwěi]; Chinese: 贺建奎; born 1984) is a Chinese biophysics researcher who was an associate professor in the Department of Biology of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen, China.[1][2][4]

He became widely known in November 2018 after he had claimed that he had created the first human genetically edited babies,[5][6][7] twin girls known by their pseudonyms, Lulu and Nana.[8][9] The announcement in November 2018 of Lulu and Nana, who were born by mid-October 2018,[2][3] was met with widespread condemnation,[2][10][11] and on 29 November 2018, Chinese authorities suspended all his research activities.[12] Dr. William Hurlbut, Stanford University neuroscientist and bioethicist, reported that He is staying in a university apartment in Shenzhen “by mutual agreement” and is free to leave; often visiting the gym and taking walks with his wife.[13] Nonetheless, He may be under some form of surveillance,[14][15] and may face serious consequences.[16] On January 21, 2019, He was fired by SUSTech according to the university's announcement.[17]

In May 2019, lawyers in China reported, in light of the purported creation by He Jiankui of the first gene-edited humans, the drafting of regulations that anyone manipulating the human genome by gene-editing techniques, like CRISPR, would be held responsible for any related adverse consequences.[18]

Education and career[edit]

Born in Xinhua County, Loudi, Hunan in 1984,[9] He Jiankui was educated at the University of Science and Technology of China as an undergraduate student from 2002 to 2006.[9] He entered Rice University in 2007 and received his Ph.D. degree in Biophysics under the supervision of Professor Michael W. Deem in 2010.[9] After his Ph.D., he worked as a postdoc fellow with Stephen Quake at Stanford University.[3][19] He moved back to China in 2012 under the Thousand Talents Program and opened a lab at the Southern University of Science and Technology.[19] As part of the program, he was given 1 million yuan ($144,000) in angel funding, which he used to start biotech and investment companies.[20][21] One of his startups is Direct Genomics, which is developing single-molecule sequencing devices based on patents invented by Quake that had formerly been licensed by Helicos Biosciences.[20] He also founded Vienomics Biotech, which offers genome sequencing services for people with cancer.[21]

He took an unpaid leave from the university starting in February 2018, and began conducting the genome-editing clinical experiment.[22][23][24] On 26 November 2018, he announced the birth of gene-edited human babies, Lulu and Nana.[23] Three days later, on 29 November 2018, Chinese authorities suspended all of his research activities, saying that his work was "extremely abominable in nature" and a violation of Chinese law.[12] In December 2018, following public outcry regarding his work, He appeared to have gone missing.[25] China's Southern University of Science and Technology denied the widespread rumors that he had been detained.


In 2010, at Rice University, He and Michael W. Deem published a paper describing some details of the CRISPR protein; this paper was part of the early work on the CRISPR/Cas9 system, before it had been adopted as a gene editing tool.[19]

In 2017, He gave a presentation at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory describing work he did at Southern University of Science and Technology, in which he used CRISPR/Cas9 on mice, monkeys, and around 300 human embryos.[26]

In January 2019, scientists in China reported the creation of five identical cloned gene-edited monkeys, using the same cloning technique that was used with Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua – the first ever cloned monkeys - and Dolly the sheep, and the same gene-editing Crispr-Cas9 technique allegedly used by He Jiankui in creating the first ever gene-modified human babies Lulu and Nana. The monkey clones were made in order to study several medical diseases.[27][28]

In February 2019, scientists reported that the purportedly first-ever germline genetically edited humans, the twin babies Lulu and Nana, by Chinese researcher He Jiankui, may have inadvertently (or perhaps, intentionally[29]) had their brains enhanced.[30]

In June 2019, researchers suggest that the purportedly genetically edited humans may have been mutated in a way that shortens life expectancy.[31][32][33]

Gene-editing controversy[edit]

He Jiankui speaking at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing

He Jiankui's human gene-editing clinical experiment was conducted without public discussion in the scientific community;[10][5] it was first made public on 25 November 2018 when MIT Technology Review published a story about the work, based on documents that had been posted earlier that month on the Chinese clinical trials registry. After that story was posted, He released a promotional video on YouTube and the next day the Associated Press published an interview with He.[26][23] He had engaged a public relations firm as well.[19] He eventually presented the work on 27 November at the International Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong.[8]

The experiment had recruited couples who wanted to have children; in order to participate, the man had to be HIV-positive and the woman, uninfected.[23] The couples were recruited through a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group called Baihualin.[23] As of 28 November, it was unclear whether the clinical experiment had received appropriate ethical review from an institutional review board before it started, and it was unclear if the participants had given truly informed consent.[8][23]

He said that he took sperm and eggs from the couples, performed in vitro fertilization with them, and then edited the genomes of the embryos using CRISPR/Cas9.[23] The editing targeted a gene, CCR5, that codes for a protein that HIV-1 uses to enter cells.[34][35] He was trying to create a specific mutation in the gene, (CCR5 Δ32), that few people naturally have and that possibly confers innate resistance to HIV-1,[34] as seen in the case of the Berlin Patient.[36] He said that the girls still carried functional copies of CCR5 along with disabled CCR5 given mosaicism inherent in the present state of the art in germ-line editing.[8] There are forms of HIV that use a different receptor instead of CCR5, and the work that He did could not protect resulting children from those forms of HIV.[34]

He said that he used a preimplantation genetic diagnosis process on the embryos that were edited, where three to five single cells were removed and the editing was checked. He said that parents were offered the choice of using edited or unedited embryos.[23]

The twin girls were born by mid-October 2018, according to emails from Dr. He to an adviser.[37] He said that they appeared to be healthy.[8] When they were born, it was unclear if there might be long-term effects from the gene-editing; He was asked about his plans to monitor the children, and pay for their care should any problems arise, and how their confidentiality and that of their parents could remain protected.[8] The names of the children used in reports, "Lulu" and "Nana", and the names of their parents, "Mark" and "Grace", are pseudonyms.[38] In February 2019, He's claims were reported to have been confirmed by Chinese investigators, according to NPR News.[39]

He also said at the meeting, that a second mother in his clinical experiment was in the early stages of pregnancy.[8]


Once the existence of the clinical experiment was made public,[26] He's conduct was widely condemned.[38][40][41] Chinese scientists and institutions harshly criticized He; an article in Nature stated that concerns about He's conduct were "particularly acute in China, where scientists are sensitive to the country's reputation as the Wild West of biomedical research".[41]

Geneticist Eric Topol stated, "This is far too premature ... We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."[42] Nobel prize-winning biologist David Baltimore considered the work "irresponsible".[34] Developmental biologist Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute said, "If true...this would be a highly irresponsible, unethical and dangerous use of genome editing technology."[38] Medical ethicist Julian Savulescu of the University of Oxford noted, "If true, this experiment is monstrous."[38] Bioethicist Hanry T. Greely of Stanford Law School declared, "I unequivocally condemn the experiment,"[43] and later, "He Jiankui’s experiment was, amazingly, even worse than I first thought."[44] Biochemist Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, a pioneer of the CRISPR–Cas9 technology, condemned the research.[41][45] George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University, said gene editing for HIV resistance was "justifiable" since HIV is "a major and growing public health threat", but questioned the decision of this project to allow one of the embryos to be used in a pregnancy attempt, since the use of that embryo suggests that the researchers’ "main emphasis was on testing editing rather than avoiding this disease".[43]

Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the New York University School of Medicine, said that engineering human genes is inevitable and, although there are concerns of creating "designer babies", medical researchers are more interested in using the technology to prevent and treat diseases, much like the type of experiments performed by He.[46]

Carl Zimmer compared the reaction to He's human gene editing experiment to the initial reactions and subsequent debate over mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), and the eventual regulatory approval of MRT in the United Kingdom.[47]

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) of United States announced a statement on November 28, 2018 signed by its Director Francis S. Collins, condemning He Jiankui and his team for intentionally flouting international ethical norms by doing such irresponsible work, and criticizing that He's "project was largely carried out in secret, the medical necessity for inactivation of CCR5 in these infants is utterly unconvincing, the informed consent process appears highly questionable, and the possibility of damaging off-target effects has not been satisfactorily explored". NIH claims no support for the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.[48]

The Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences published an announcement in the journal Lancet, stating that they "are opposed to any clinical operation of human embryo genome editing for reproductive purposes in violation of laws, regulations, and ethical norms in the absence of full scientific evaluation", and condemning He Jiankui's operation for violating relevant ethical regulations and guidelines that have been clearly documented by the Chinese government. They emphasized that the "genome editing of germ cells or early embryos is still in the stage of basic research, ... scientific research institutions and researchers should not undertake clinical operations of genome editing of human germ cells for reproductive purposes, nor should they fund such research", and they will "develop and issue further operational technical and ethical guidelines as soon as possible to guide and standardise relevant research and applications according to the highest scientific and ethical standards."[49]

In April 2019, genetic experts from the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) noted, "“[We] believe there is no sound scientific reason to perform this type of gene editing on the human germline, and that the behavior of He and his team represents a gross violation of both the Chinese regulations and the consensus reached by the international science community. We strongly condemn their actions as extremely irresponsible, both scientifically and ethically.”[11]


The Southern University of Science and Technology stated that He had been on unpaid leave since February 2018, and his research was conducted outside of their campus; the university and He's department said they were unaware of the research project and said it was inviting international experts to form an independent committee to investigate the incident, and would release the results to the public.[24] Local authorities and the Chinese government also opened investigations.[12]

Michael W. Deem, his doctoral advisor at Rice University, was involved in the clinical project, and was present when people involved in his study gave consent.[23] Deem came under investigation by Rice after news of the work was made public.[50]

As of news reported on 28 December 2018, He is sequestered in a university apartment and under guard.[14][15] According to news reported on 7 January 2019, He could now face severe consequences.[51][52] William Hurlbut, Stanford University neuroscientist and bioethicist, reported that He is staying in a university apartment in Shenzhen “by mutual agreement” and is free to leave; often visiting the gym and taking walks with his wife.[13] Nonetheless, He may be under some form of surveillance,[14][15] and may face serious consequences.[16]

On 25 February 2019, news was reported that suggested the Chinese government may have helped fund the CRISPR babies experiment, at least in part, based on newly uncovered documents.[53][54][29]

Preliminary authoritative report[edit]

An investigating task force set up by the Health Commission of China in Guangdong Province released a preliminary report on January 21, 2019, stated that He had defied government bans and conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain. The report confirmed that He had recruited eight couples to participate in his experiment, resulting in two pregnancies, one of which gave birth to the gene edited twin girls in November 2018. The babies are now under medical supervision. The report said He had made forged ethical review papers in order to enlist volunteers for the procedure, and had raised his own funds deliberately evading oversight, and organized a team that included some overseas members to carry out the illegal project. Officials from the investigation said that He, as well as other relevant personnel and organizations, will receive punishment per relevant laws and regulations, and those who are suspected of committing crimes will be charged.[17][55]

The SUSTech announced a statement on its website that He had been fired.[17]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ a b c Bulluck, Pam (14 April 2019). "Gene-Edited Babies: What a Chinese Scientist Told an American Mentor". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2019.
  4. ^ Rana, Preetika (10 May 2019). "How a Chinese Scientist Broke the Rules to Create the First Gene-Edited Babies - Dr. He Jiankui, seeking glory for his nation and justice for HIV-positive parents, kept his experiment secret, ignored peers' warnings and faked a test (Paywall)". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  5. ^ a b The Editorial Board (28 January 2019). "Should Scientists Toy With the Secret to Life? - The gene-editing technology Crispr has the power to remake life as we know it. Questions about how to use it concern everyone". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
  6. ^ Staff (18 April 2019). "The scientist who created CRISPR babies is on Time's most-influential list—but not in a good way". MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 18 April 2019.
  7. ^ Doudna, Jennifer (18 April 2019). "100 Most Influential People - He Jiankui". Time. Retrieved 18 April 2019.
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  48. ^ Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. (2018-11-28). "Statement on Claim of First Gene-Edited Babies by Chinese Researcher". www.nih.gov. Bethesda, Maryland 20892: National Institutes of Health (NIH).CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
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