Mind and Body
He Jiankui: Chinese CRISPR Baby Scientist Responds to Death Penalty Rumors
He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who claimed to have used CRISPR to create the world’s first gene-edited human babies, awoke on Tuesday to an onslaught of news coverage discussing the possibility that his country’s government could sentence him to death for corruption and bribery charges stemming from the ethically murky research. But according to a new comment from the British geneticist who started the death penalty rumors, He claims to be safe and sound.
On Tuesday’s edition of the BBC 4 Radio morning news program Today, which you can listen to in the video above, Robin Lovell-Badge, Ph.D., a geneticist at The Francis Crick Institute, reported that He had contacted him after seeing all the news stories about his own possible execution.
“Well, he read the newspapers that came out overnight, which suggested that he may face the death penalty, so he sent me an email overnight to say that he’s fine,” Lovell-Badge told Today. “I think he’s obviously trying to build up his own case to defend his actions.”
In the program, he also dialed back the comments he made to The Telegraph on January 7, in which he speculated that He could receive the death penalty for bribery and corruption because he shirked official government oversight of his research.
In December, He reported at the Second International Summit on Human Gene Editing that his research aimed to alter the genomes of twin baby girls to make them resistant to HIV. In the video above, Lovell-Badge questions He about the secrecy surrounding his project, among other burning questions.
As Inverse reported at the time, the genes He was targeting weren’t the only ones that had been altered in the process — and it’s not even clear that the intended genetic change took place in both babies. These issues are just a couple of the myriad problems with He’s project, issues that include the way He went about doing his research.
What seems to have led to He’s confinement to an apartment at the Southern University of Science and Technology, where he ran his genetics lab, is that he violated Chinese scientific guidelines by genetically altering human embryos that were then implanted into a woman’s uterus and allowed to develop into humans — rather than destroying them at the conclusion of his experiments. Lovell-Badge pointed out on Tuesday, though, that while He clearly violated this guideline, the law doesn’t specify any particular punishment for the violation.
That being said, He also faces potential corruption and bribery charges that stem from how he built the team of people to conduct this research — a team that, Lovell-Badge argued, must have included an IVF clinic, other scientists, and obstetricians, just to name a few potential collaborators.
“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 had told The Telegraph on Monday. He added that “Quite a few people have lost their heads for corruption.”
Lovell-Badge’s initial comments on He’s potential fate were based on the Chinese government’s history of punishing corruption with the death penalty, but his clarifications on Tuesday suggested that he doesn’t possess any special insight into the particulars of He’s situation. And while Lovell-Badge may have been speaking off-the-cuff about He’s punishment, he does have serious concerns about the way the research went down.
"“The techniques, whilst could be incredibly promising, are absolutely not ready yet to be used."
On Today, Lovell-Badge described his impression of He as “someone who has basically taken it onboard themselves to think they can do everything, from [dealing] with the ethics, to the science, go forward against all advice that he had received from others — that at least we know of, in the west — and against the consensus from scientists that the techniques, whilst could be incredibly promising, are absolutely not ready yet to be used.”
Despite the potentially grave charges He could be facing, though, Lovell-Badge even disputes the nature of his detention, which he had previously characterized as house arrest or something like it.
“It’s not clear that he’s been arrested, actually,” said Lovell-Badge. “He’s apparently — according to Chinese news reports — he’s in an apartment at the university where he has an appointment, and there are guards. I have no idea whether they’re armed or not.” Regardless, He has not been in direct contact with the press since the controversy erupted in December, and there’s no clear indication that He’s email to Lovell-Badge was actually sent by He.
While Robin Lovell-Badge’s initial speculation about He Jiankui may have launched a thousand news stories, it doesn’t seem that his later comments have gotten as much attention. Inverse will continue following this story as it develops.