As It Happens

Scientist jailed for making gene-edited babies had 'idealistic' intentions, says colleague

A Chinese scientist who was jailed for helping to make the world's first genetically edited babies thought he was doing good, says a colleague who has had several personal conversations with him. 

Dr. William Hurlbut says He Jiankui's heart was in the right place, but he was in 'too much of a hurry'

He Jiankui was sentenced Monday to three years in prison because of his research, state media said, Chinese state media said. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

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A Chinese scientist who was jailed for making the world's first genetically edited babies thought he was doing good, says a colleague who has had several personal conversations with him. 

In November 2018, He Jiankui said he had used gene-editing technology to change the genes of twin girls to protect them from getting infected with the HIV virus in the future.

He was convicted on Monday of practicing medicine without a licence, sentenced to three years in prison and fined three million yuan ($561,000 Cdn), Chinese state media reports. Two other researchers involved in the project received lesser sentences and fines.

Dr. William Hurlbut, a physician and professor of neural-biology at Stanford University, says he tried to warn He to slow down before it was too late. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

What was your reaction to the news that Dr. He had been sentenced to three years in prison?

My first reaction was one of sadness because I know Dr. He — who we call J.K., that's his nickname.

I spent quite a few hours talking with him, and I'm just sad that this worked out this way. It didn't work out well for him or for his country or for the world, in some sense.

Except the one good thing is it's alerted us, it's awakened the world, to the seriousness of the issues that are coming down toward us with biotechnology, especially in genetics.

How does he feel about [how] not just the Chinese government, but the world generally, responded to his experiment?

He was surprised, personally. But I had actually warned him that he was proceeding too fast, and I didn't know he had implanted embryos.

We had several conversations before this was disclosed, and I warned him to go more slowly and to keep in conversation with the rest of the international scientific community, and more broadly the international perspectives on social and ethical matters.

He was doing that to some extent, but not deeply enough and not transparently enough.

Do you think he feels any remorse?

Yes. In fact, he wrote to me about three weeks after the Hong Kong summit where his work was disclosed.

We had a series of long, long conversations, two or three hours, about this whole matter. And at one point, he sent me an email saying he really regretted that he proceeded the way he had, and had remorse about it.

He thought that at least his own nation would be proud of him. And now it turns out he's being punished. 

The Chinese state media is reporting their prosecutor's allegation that He was motivated by fame and money. I mean, they say he conspired with others because there was a commercial benefit to be gained from all of this. What's your take on that?

It's pretty hard to separate out people's personal ambitions of fame and fortune. 

But I know for sure he had a very idealistic overarching intention. And he realized that there were a lot of very serious needs associated with genetic diseases, that there were social problems associated with HIV-AIDS in China that he hoped to address — and so here he was really believing that he was launching out boldly into something that would benefit everybody.

You said earlier, though, that he didn't tell you ... that he'd actually implanted embryos.  I mean, if he withheld that information, do you think it's because he thought it would raise a red flag with you?

I think maybe the reason he didn't tell me this is because I'd been urging him not to do it. But he was interested in the ethical issues and was trying to understand them. He was just in too much of a hurry.

William Hurlbut of Stanford University says He was motivated by a desire to do good, but he was in too much of a hurry. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

It sounds like you were very thoughtful in the conversations you had with him and the advice you gave him. And I guess you operated with what you had. But do you have any regrets yourself?

I don't have any regrets about the way I conducted myself. I regret that this happened this way for J.K., who is a very bright person, and a very nice person, a humble person.

He grew up in a poor urban farming village. He told me that at one point he wanted to ask out a certain girl that he thought was really pretty ... but he was embarrassed to do so because her family owned the restaurant. And so you see how humble his origins were.

By the way, he did end up asking her out and he ended up marrying her, which is a happy story, except now they're separated for years of crucial time, and they have little children. 

I know this is a bigger story than just J.K. and his family. But there's a personal story to it too.

Do you worry that because he has pushed the boundaries this far that others will do the same or take it even further?

On the one hand, he did open the territory. 

But it's obvious that this brought a lot of scrutiny from the world, a lot of opprobrium, a lot of condemnation. And so I think people will be a little more careful than they might have been.

The most positive thing to come out of this — and I told J.K. this when he was feeling especially down — at the very least you did one good thing, and that was awakened the world to the seriousness of these issues.

I'm hopeful that now we will find a way to have a global conversation about it. Because, really, these are issues that relate to the whole human family. They're really species issues, not national or commercial interests or concerns.

They're really issues for figuring out what kind of future we want as human beings, what kind of relationship we want with our children and how we approach diseases versus enhancements, and what kind of social structures we want to govern our science.

Those are really, really important issues — perhaps the most important issues our species has ever faced, because they have to do with the very core foundations of our biological nature. And if we don't address them with wisdom, we're liable to make a lot of mistakes.

Beyond these ethical and medical conversations, there's the reality that there are two little girls, real children, who have apparently had their genes edited. What kind of future do you imagine they and possibly even their descendants might face as being unwitting test subjects?

I would guess medically, these children would be OK. But the social issue is, of course, significant. The families certainly do not want their children to be on public display.

I'm sure the little twins will be carefully studied by the Chinese government. They've said they're going to monitor them.

But they're going to have to ... preserve their privacy if they don't to either just be harassed by curiosity-seekers or by even negative attitudes.

What happens He Jiankui? ... Is his research career over?

It's hard to imagine that a nation like China would not give him some some useful role in their society. A very intelligent and very well-educated young man. 

But on the other hand, he will be forever a sign of a very crucial and difficult moment for the human species. He's not going outlive that.

It's going to be interesting. I hope I get a chance to have good conversations with him again and hear his internal ruminations and perspectives on it all.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.