He Jiankui. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

He Jiankui. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

He Jiankui, the controversial scientist whose unlicensed work led to the birth of twin baby girls whose DNA was modified, is in big trouble. Since his announcement sparked international outcry, the Chinese scientist has come off the radar. According to sources close to the matter, He Jiankui has been under armed guard at a state-owned apartment in Shenzen, China, since early December. The scientist is now facing corruption and bribery charges, both crimes that carry the death penalty in China.

A scapegoat?

The Chinese researcher, who used to be an Associate Professor at Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, used CRISPR gene-editing technology to modify live embryos. The procedure allegedly modified the CCR5 gene in such a way as to potentially make the offspring resistant to HIV. Instead of destroying the embryos, per research guidelines in China, He Jiankui and associates planted the embryos in surrogate mothers and allowed the pregnancy to follow through, resulting in the birth of twin baby girls. The birth has not been independently confirmed or documented in a peer-reviewed journal, but respectable researchers with access to some of He’s work say in all probability the work was carried through

The announcement was made quite nonchalantly by He during a keynote presentation at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at the University of Hong Kong, held in November 2018. One of the organizers, geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London, had invited He to speak at the conference after learning of his plans. Lovell-Badge had hoped that attending the conference with some of the foremost people in the field would temper the Chinese scientist’s enthusiasm. But much like everybody else at the event, Lovell-Badge was flabbergasted to learn that He wasn’t just planning — the work had already been done.

“None of us knew how far he’d actually got,” Lovell-Badge said, adding that experts knew only of his research on mice, monkeys and human embryos. “Clearly, we were too late.”

Subsequently, we came to learn that He had been working on his research while on unpaid leave and used his own financial resources to hire people to help him. He had founded and sold various companies which made him very wealthy and respected (until recently) by Chinese elites. Although the documents the Chinese researchers filed for clinical trials included a valid ethical review, the hospital involved denied that its ethics review committee ever met to discuss the work. China’s Southern University, where He and colleagues were employed, said it did not support the experiment. The university also announced that it has launched an investigation. To make matters worse, He is a trained physicist with little to any experience in biology.

What’s striking is that the 34-year-old scientist had no sense of remorse while making his ‘big’ announcement in Hong Kong. He actually said that he was proud of the achievement.

Well, it seems that Chinese authorities are of a different opinion.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Lovell-Badge said He could face corruption and bribery charges, adding that “quite a few people have lost their heads for corruption.” Indeed, things look pretty gloomy for He Jiankui, who was expecting reverence as a pioneer, but who instead could face the axe.

“Lots of people are probably going to lose their jobs, he wasn’t the only one involved in this obviously. So how has he got them to do all this work? He could be had up on all sorts of charges of corruption and being guilty of corruption in China these days is not something you want to be,” Lovell-Badge told The Telegraph.

“Here you have a physicist who knows little biology, is very rich, has a huge ego, wants to be the first at doing something that will change the world,” Lovell-Badge added.

Lovell-Badge says that He is currently confined to an apartment under armed guard. It’s not clear at this point if the guards are there to restrict him or protect him. Since He made his controversial announcement, the Chinese physicist has received many death threats.

For the moment, He is under investigation by the Chinese government and could face jail time or even the death penalty, in the most extreme case. It’s an incredibly opaque situation at this point, as with many dark things in China. It would be very convenient for the local authorities to present a scapegoat — the head on a pike that eases the anger of the masses. However, what’s to keep something similar from happening again? If there’s anything to learn from this whole scandal it is that all countries should require stricter oversight and laws around gene editing on humans.

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