He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who sparked global outrage in 2018 when he revealed that he had created the first gene-edited children, has put forward a new proposal for modifying human embryos that he claims could help aid the “aging population.”
He, who in 2019 was sentenced to three years in prison in China for “illegal medical practices,” reemerged last year and surprised the global scientific community when he announced on social media that he was opening a research lab in Beijing.
Since that time, updates on his research posted on his Twitter account have focused on proposed plans to develop gene therapy for rare disease.
But on Thursday, he again courted controversy by posting a new research proposal that experts say is reminiscent of his earlier work, which scientists broadly decried as unethical and dangerous – with the potential to impact human DNA across generations.
In a succinct, one page document, He proposed research that would involve gene-editing mouse embryos and then human fertilized egg cells, or zygotes, in order to test whether a mutation “confers protection against Alzheimer’s disease.”
“The aging population is of grave importance as both a socioeconomic issue and a strain on the medical system … Currently, there is no effective drug for Alzheimer’s disease,” he wrote in an apparent nod to China’s growing demographic burden due to a rising proportion of elderly.
Unlike the science that landed him in jail, this potential experiment involves a kind of abnormal fertilized egg cell generally considered not suitable to be implanted in a woman.
No human embryo would be implanted for pregnancy and “government permit and ethical approval” were required before experimentation, the proposal said.
It’s not clear whether He would get approval for such work in China, even if the proposal he put forward were deemed to have merit – and outside experts say the current proposal is not scientifically sound.
Authorities in China took multiple steps to tighten rules and ethical standards affecting human gene editing in the wake of the revelations about his previous research. They also banned He from engaging in work related to assisted reproductive technology services and placed limits on his work with human genetic resources, according to state media.
But the scientist’s release of a new proposal involving gene editing of embryos has scientists and medical ethics experts concerned – and confused.
“The whole thing is, to put it bluntly, insane,” said Peter Dröge, an associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who focuses on molecular and biochemical genetics.
The proposed research could be seen as a step to explore if such a method of genetic editing could be used in a viable embryo in future, according to Dröge.
Apart from ethical considerations, gene-editing an embryo to address a complex disease that affects people toward the end of their life and doesn’t have a clear, single genetic cause is “highly questionable,” he said.
“He basically wants to genetically modify the human species so they don’t get Alzheimer’s,” he said. “I’m really surprised that he’s coming forward with this again.”
Joy Zhang, founding director of the Centre for Global Science and Epistemic Justice at the University of Kent in Britain, said the proposal seemed to be “more of a publicity stunt than a substantiated research agenda.”
“However, we do need to take these public claims with vigilance, as it may nevertheless misguide patients and their families, and tint the reputations not just of science in China, but global research effort in this area,” she said.
In response to questions from CNN, He said he was “collecting feedback from scientists and bioethicists now” and did not have a timeline for the study.
“I will make a revision to the Alzheimer’s disease proposal later. I will not conduct any experiments until I get the government permit, and also get the approval by an international ethics committee with bioethicist