By now, many of us have heard of He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who announced at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing that he had genetically modified a pair of twins in an attempt to prevent the contraction of HIV from their father. But a question still lingers in our minds: Why? What compelled a promising young scientist to make such a big leap without sufficient research, testing or approval? According to experts such as Yangyang Cheng, a physicist schooled in the same Chinese university as He, He’s reckless and dangerous experimentation is a byproduct of the flaws in the Chinese system.
The edits that He imposed on the twins’ DNA were unnecessary and far too risky. To begin with, highly effective methods already exist to prevent the passing of HIV from known HIV-positive parents to their offspring, particularly if the infected parent is the father. Furthermore, testing of CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene editors has never before been applied to germ line cells, wherein lie the inheritable genetic code. Editing one gene such as CCR5, which allows HIV to infiltrate a cell, may cause harmful mutations in other genes that could then be passed to future generations. He performed this needless procedure without first releasing his intent or any formal report for review.
Cheng explains that while He’s work was condemned by the Chinese government and the majority of the scientific community, his behavior is a result of the current political climate in China. He was born in a poor village and strived to make himself known in Shenzhen, a city of like-minded scientists and idea men. The Chinese government’s unrelenting push to rapidly advance as a global power fostered the growth of ideas such as He’s, particularly with one such project titled “indigenous innovation.” The ironically named campaign encourages Chinese scientists to buy out foreign businesses in order to procure their technology and partner with their employees abroad. He’s technology, derived from a machine built by his postdoctoral supervisor’s company at Stanford University and acquired after the company’s bankruptcy, was a product of this venture. This program promoted the idea of trying to become the first and the best, but had its foundation in taking advantage of other people’s hard work. This enabled He to go forth with his research and prematurely implement his plan in hopes of garnering acclaim and prestige, regardless of the potential harm to others.
The scarcity of rules and regulations regarding scientific technology and, specifically, gene editing further encouraged He to proceed without fear of repercussions. Although China’s government has revoked its support of He and aims to prosecute him, the lack of relevant laws may pose a limit to how much He can be punished. Moving forward, stricter standardized rules should be implemented internationally to govern scientific technology as it continues to advance.
China’s drive to emerge as a global leader was not the only motivator of He’s ruthless behavior. Chinese professor Zhu Dake elucidates the unchecked thirst for prosperity that is ingrained in Chinese culture.
“The Chinese way is to only think of success; we don’t think of whether the path to that success is legal or ethical, and you can use as many tricks as you want as long as you succeed. Every Chinese person grows up with this notion,” Zhu said. As a result, He was likely only thinking of the publicity his announcement would generate for him and his company and not the future ramifications. Not only did his work pose harm to the twins and their future descendants, He’s declaration could spur scientists of a similar mindset across the world to rush forward with their own dangerous projects, just with added caution and secrecy. Therefore, it is imperative that the Chinese government attempts to discourage such behavior by developing a fitting punishment for He and his accomplices.
China is not the only country who must be wary of its political and cultural weaknesses; in capitalist societies, selfish conduct is often rewarded and even encouraged. In the scientific community especially, this way of thinking can prove incredibly perilous. Nations should therefore strongly consider requiring all science curriculums to include ethics training. Scientists would benefit from remembering that their research has the power to change lives not only for the better, but also for the worse. It also may be the time to create a national organization to supervise and regulate bioethics in scientific research, to prevent this foolish behavior from happening again.
Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.