Perhaps He Jiankui, the Chinese geneticist who announced the birth of the first genetically modified children this week, imagines himself as a new Robert Edwards, the father of in vitro fertilization. He himself compared the reaction to his works with the harsh criticism that the pioneers of assisted reproduction had to endure when in 1978 they announced the birth of Louise Brown, the first "baby tube". But without submitting his research to the review of other scientists, without revealing the truth to some of his collaborators and ignoring the international consensus against genetic editing in children, his experiment generated an immediate and widespread rejection. And his reputation, more than that of an aspiring Nobel Prize winner, looks like a fairytale charlatan, destined not to his laurels, but to his reproach.
It is not that I seem to regret it. This Wednesday, in front of an auditorium full of 700 people and an audience of thousands of people connected online, he appeared with a decided step to explain before a congress in Hong Kong. "I'm proud, I'm very proud," said this young scientist, almost completely unknown until last Sunday and with few publications to his credit, while he answered casually but without great details to a whole battery of questions from moderators, the media and the specialized public. .
It was the moment he had been waiting for at least two years. He had entered the floor of the floor like a movie star. Waiting a few seconds, crossing the lectern with firm steps. A portable wallet as a concession to the image of a scientist. He began his speech with a smile: "Excuses for filtering results before a scientific review".
The drowned exclamations of the audience were audible. The escape was very deliberate and had been on his side: he had hired a public relations agent; a month earlier he had contacted the journalists; He had recorded videos on YouTube to announce his success on the day this important congress began.
His request for forgiveness deepened the contradictions and the curtains of smoke, around this researcher, in which the roles of scientist, advertising promoter and business man are mixed in an unclear proportion. And whose statements contain omissions, half truths, vagueness or inaccuracy.
Public relations, videos and journalists
If he did not hesitate to contact journalists, for two years he did not consider it necessary to submit an article about his research to any scientific publication, where he would have to undergo the review of other specialists. Not even asking permission from the Chinese scientific authorities, or his university, which he admitted in his speech, has kept in mind his intentions. Not even some of his collaborators, given the risk, as he said, not wanting to work with volunteers infected with the AIDS virus. And although I make sure that I have fully informed the couples, the authorization document refers to the purpose of research not to genetic manipulation, but to look for a vaccine against the syndrome.
He says he does not look for eugenic alterations. What motivates him is the interest to help families with incurable diseases. Which is also a father. AIDS is a disease for which there is still no vaccine and that has known people in China where 80% of its inhabitants were infected and parents had to give their children to other people to take care of them . But the truth is, there are other, much simpler methods to prevent infection in newborns.
He also says that he did everything as he should. That volunteer couples received abundant information about what the experiment involved and about the risks before agreeing to participate. He was commenting on his investigations with other colleagues, Chinese and foreign. He presented his experiments with mice, monkeys and human embryos at expert meetings, one of them last year in New York.
But the scientists he has been talking to over the past two years ensure that at no time did he tell them that he worked in order to implant embryos and achieve a successful pregnancy. Feng Zhang, one of the fathers of CRISPR technology, employed by the Chinese geneticist, recalls that "it was clear that he had the same problems as other researchers on the lack of efficiency and accuracy" of this method. "I told him that the technology is not sufficiently efficient or precise for its application in real-world embryos, including the applications of in vitro fertilization in humans," he told the SLAT publication.
In China, it seems, he did not even disclose his plans. Although the experiment was conducted in Shenzhen, in the south, where he has his own laboratory, he has recruited volunteer couples through a humanitarian organization against AIDS in Beijing. He got a leave from his University, SUST (South China University of Science and Technology) and although this center paid part of the experiment through the start-up funds, he assured that the expenses of the volunteers were borne of your account. And that, although it has two companies specializing in genetic research, it has not put money from any of the companies.
The university has distanced itself from him. Also the hospital with which he allegedly cooperated, which denounces the falsification of the signatures.
How could he proceed? In China, the laws regulating research are vague and their application relatively lax. The rigor of ethics committees is very variable. The overwhelming majority of academics and experts develop their work within rigorous ethical and scientific parameters; but the pressure to innovate in forced marches and the abundant availability of funds have also allowed us to start crazy projects that end up being nothing. In 2016, two scientists in northern China, Sergio Canavero and Ren Xiaoping, announced their intention to try transplants of the whole body; a laboratory in Tianjin (east of China) proposed to clone a million cows.
It is not clear, given the opacity of the research, if the experiment of He belongs to this last group or, indeed and despite the lack of details, is serious.
The specialists believe it is perfectly possible that he got it. As pointed out, CRISPR is a relatively simple technology to use. And he has the necessary knowledge.
Talent is back
This son of peasants, born in the south of his country in 1984, studied physics at the University of Science and Technology of China. He continued his studies in the United States: a Ph.D. in Biophysics at Rice University and a postdoctoral between 2010 and 2012 at Stanford, in the laboratory of Professor Stephen Quake, where he researched genetic sequencing.
In 2012 he returned to China, encouraged in part by the "Thousand Talents" program, which rewards highly skilled professionals who want to work in this country, and obtained a position as associate professor at SUST, created a year earlier in Shenzhen. There his work focused on the search for monkeys, mice and non-viable embryos.
Or so he said. As is now clear, his main task was to seek glory. Or, as José Pastor, director of the Tsinghua University laboratory, points out, "almost certainly, this researcher does not encourage anything other than being the first to do something like that".