He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist who announced in 2018 the successful birth of the world’s first genetically-edited babies, arousing international condemnation, was released from prison earlier this year following a three-year sentence. On November 24, the former associate professor at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology declared the establishment of a new laboratory in Beijing, where he plans to engage in scientific research on gene therapy for rare genetic diseases.
He Jiankui wrote that “the new laboratory is engaged in research on affordable gene therapy, that is, treatment that is less than 100,000 yuan [$13,884] and affordable to patients. Gene therapy in Western countries often costs millions of dollars, which makes many families fall into poverty due to illness. With the support of social philanthropists, we will overcome three to five genetic diseases within two to three years to benefit families with rare diseases.”
As to why he will focus on the treatment of rare genetic diseases, He also disclosed on social media that gene therapy is limited to rare genetic diseases as this kind of treatment usually only needs to correct one gene. Major diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, are often caused by many genes.
In the comment section of He’s social media account, reactions from Chinese web users have been varied. In response to the question of whether this gene therapy would affect the genes of patients’ offspring, He said it would not. Other web users commented that they hoped He’s research could help their children who suffer from rare genetic diseases, such as neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1).
According to He’s posts, the scientist was invited in early November to give an online speech entitled “The Boundary of Gene Editing Era” at Harvard University. The organizer of the event was the Global Observatory on Genome Editing, focusing on the impact and lessons brought by the development of genome editing in the past few years on gene editing governance. The main reason for inviting He is that his previous “gene-editing babies” project refocused questions about the ethics of heritable genome editing.
In October, Terry Horgan, the only person globally with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) to ever volunteer to participate in CRISPR gene editing therapy, died during treatment. The therapy was specially developed and designed by Terry’s brother.
After hearing this news, He Jiankui expressed his own opinion, writing, “Terry Horgan, the world’s first genetic disease patient who died of gene editing therapy, sounded the alarm for us! In the past three years, driven by capital and the grandiloquence of some scientists, ordinary people have produced many fantasies about gene editing. However, history tells us that when any new technology first appears, it is both an angel and a devil. Blind pursuit and rash advance of new technology will be punished by Heaven. Scientific research scholars should have awe of nature and technology, and move forward carefully with a mentality of treading on thin ice.”
On November 28, He Jiankui posted, “I accepted the invitation and will visit Oxford University in the UK in March next year, and accept a series of interviews on ‘Good Genes: CRISPR-Cas9 in Reproductive Medicine,’ which can be watched online. Thanks to Professor Kirksey of St. Cross College for his invitation.”