The Crispr Baby Scientist Is Back. Here’s What He’s Doing Next

Some scientists and ethicists think He deserves a chance to prove that he’s capable of producing scientifically valid and ethically sound work. “His case is publicly known enough that the world will judge his credibility,” says Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University. “I think anything he says will be treated with considerable skepticism.” But she doesn’t see a moral basis for banning He from publishing future work if his research holds up to the peer-review process.

Others have concerns about He’s plans. “I would not want this guy anywhere near any sort of clinical trial or in a context in which therapies are being developed and given to patients,” says Kiran Musunuru, a cardiologist and gene-editing expert at the University of Pennsylvania who authored The Crispr Generation, a book about the history of gene editing and the Chinese babies.

“He did illegal and grossly unethical experiments in secret, and now he wants to pick up as if nothing happened,” says Hank Greely, a professor of law at Stanford University and author of the book Crispr People, which explores the science and ethics of human gene editing. “I don’t think science should accept him back, at least not without some more time and some indication that he understands, accepts, and acknowledges that he screwed up.” Greely thinks for now, scientific journals should refuse to publish papers by He, and organizations outside of China should deny him research grants, but he’s not sure how long that prohibition should last.

He has not publicly apologized for his Crispr experiments, which were intended to make the babies resistant to HIV by using Crispr to create a mutation in a gene called CCR5. This trait occurs naturally in some people of European descent and blocks HIV from entering cells. But He’s data showed that the babies’ cells exhibited mosaicism—meaning the editing wasn’t uniform. It’s unknown whether the children have any health effects related to the editing.

At the 2018 genome editing conference in Hong Kong he defended his work, saying, “For this specific case, I feel proud, actually.” When asked by WIRED how he responds to criticism of his work as highly unethical, and whether he still holds the same opinion he did in 2018, he replied: “To answer your question, I will talk about it during my visit to Oxford University next March.”

He was referring to an invitation from Eben Kirksey, an anthropologist at Oxford University who has written a book about the Chinese Crispr babies called The Mutant Project, and has invited He for a speaking event in the spring. The details and format of the event haven’t been worked out.

Academics are divided on whether He should be allowed to attend and speak at scientific events outside of China. In May, He was invited to a closed-door meeting hosted by the Global Observatory for Genome Editing, a group established in 2020 by Jasanoff and other academics to foster international dialogue about gene editing and society. “We wanted to find out more about the circumstances that led to his decision to do what he did,” Jasanoff says. “We were not interested in playing any part in a rehabilitation effort by He and took pains to construct our process in a way that would not be construed as giving him a platform.” 

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Emily Mullin