November 30, 2022

He did his time

He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysics researcher who became the first to genetically edit human embryos, has been released from jail after three years. He has refused to make any statements to the press.

He was sentenced to prison after announcing at an international conference in Hong Kong that he had used CRISPR to insert a gene into three embryos to make them resistant to HIV. Initially this was hailed by the Chinese media as “a historical breakthrough”. But when foreign scientists expressed their dismay that he had apparently ignored ethical safeguards, his work was quickly suspended. He was later charged and found guilty of having “forged ethical review documents and misled doctors into unknowingly implanting gene-edited embryos into two women.” He was jailed for three years and fined 500,000 RMB (US$80,000).

Two of his Chinese colleagues were also found guilty but received less severe punishments. His international collaborators were never sanctioned or censured for their participation.

According to a report by Antonio Regalado, writing in MIT Technology Review, “It’s unclear whether He has plans to return to scientific research in China or another country. People who know him have described the biophysicist, who was trained at Rice University and Stanford, as idealistic, naïve, and ambitious. Before his world collapsed around him, He believed he’d created a new way to ‘control the HIV epidemic’ that would be considered for a Nobel Prize.”