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Genetically Altered Babies - Who Is He Jainkui?

By Antonia Čirjak January 25 2020

A scenario for the famous X Files series episode or some horrible conspiracy theory story?
A scenario for the famous X Files series episode or some horrible conspiracy theory story?

Type in He Jainkui into a Google search, and the first thing that will appear is - he produced genetically altered babies. For most, this alone will be enough to recoil in anger and astonishment because it sounds like a scenario for the famous X Files series episode or some horrible conspiracy theory stories. 

It is neither of those things. 

In fact, this is a true story playing out in front of us. 

He Jainkui, What Have You Done? 

He Jainkui is a Chinese scientist who has confessed to producing genetically altered babies.  Found guilty because of “illegal medical practices,” Jainkui has become almost notorious in scientific circles, with most condemning what he had done. 

Naturally, some hold him in high regard and see him as a “biohacker.” The term refers to scientists who strike out on their own and operate away from institutions and academia. 

Because he picked the CCR5 gene, involved with the HIV infection, and edited them, He had selected couples who wanted to have children, but in each case, the father was HIV positive while the mother was negative. The twin girls, born in November 2018, appear healthy and not showing any signs of HIV infection. This is also Jainkui’s central defense - he wants to prevent the HIV infection in millions of children around the world, most notably in Africa. And while this intention is remarkable, the untransparent manner by which the whole procedure was done is the main issue.

The Biohacker - New Way of Doing Science? 

Genetic engineering and gene manipulation.
Genetic engineering and gene manipulation.

Jainkui has created the so-called CRISPR babies. The twin girls were born in China, their mother has conceived via IVF procedure, and that is not a problem. However, the embryos have been edited by the CRISPR genome editor. And while the CRISPR allows for the DNA alterations to be made and can be used to great advantage when it comes to the prevention of dreadful diseases, the scientific community was left astonished when it became apparent that He forged documents to be able to recruit couples for his experiment.

What also came to light after his grandiose announcement about “Lulu” and “Nana” (as he calls the girls) is that he has worked on this project for years and had conducted various conversations on this topic with several U.S scientists who have issued warnings about this kind of “second-rate” science. 

Further issues arose when it became obvious he disregarded ethical guidelines despite studying them meticulously. What the majority in the scientific community is stating is that there are other ways, just as effective, of protecting people from contracting HIV. On the other hand,  the consequences for babies that are exposed to gene editing are enormous and still not researched enough.    

The Legacy Of He Jainkui 

At the moment, not many people are supporting what He had done. However, times change, and many would argue that “going rogue” is sometimes the only way to make progress. Others will say that there must be boundaries, and those should be respected. Time and history will have the final say when it comes to the legacy of He Jainkui. 

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