(CNN) — He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who sparked global outrage in 2018 when he revealed he had created the first genetically modified children, has put forward a new proposal to modify human embryos which he says could contribute to ” Aging of the population”.
Sentenced to three years in prison in China for “illegal medical practices” in 2019, he resurfaced last year and shocked the global scientific community by announcing on social media that he was going to open a research laboratory in Beijing.
Since then, his research updates posted on his Twitter account have focused on proposed plans to develop gene therapy for rare diseases.
But last Thursday, he sparked controversy again when he published a new research proposal that experts say is reminiscent of his earlier work, which scientists have widely labeled as unethical and dangerous, with the potential to affect human DNA across generations. .
In a succinct one-page article, he proposed research that would involve genetic editing of mouse embryos and then human fertilized eggs, or zygotes, to test whether a mutation “confers protection against the disease of Alzheimer’s”.
“The aging of the population is of great importance as a socio-economic problem and as a burden on the medical system… Currently, there are no effective drugs for Alzheimer’s disease”, a- he writes in an apparent nod to China’s growing demographic burden. to the increase in the proportion of elderly people.
Unlike the science experiments that landed him in prison, this potential experiment involves some kind of abnormal fertilized egg that is generally considered unsuitable for implantation into a woman.
No human embryos would be implanted for pregnancy and “government authorization and ethical approval” was required before experimentation, according to the proposal.
It’s unclear whether he would win approval for such work in China, even if the proposal he presented were deemed valid, and outside experts say the current proposal is not scientifically sound.
Chinese authorities have taken several steps to tighten rules and ethical standards affecting human gene editing following revelations about their past research. They also banned him from doing work related to assisted reproductive technology services and placed limits on his work with human genetic resources, according to state media.
But the launch by scientists of a new proposal involving gene editing of embryos is worrying and confusing scientists and medical ethicists.
“It’s all, to put it bluntly, crazy,” said Peter Dröge, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who specializes in molecular genetics and biochemistry.
The proposed research could be seen as a step to explore whether such a gene-editing method could be used on a viable embryo in the future, according to Dröge.
In addition to ethical considerations, genetic editing of an embryo to treat a complex disease that affects people towards the end of life, and which has no single, clear genetic cause, is “highly questionable”, a he declared.
“He basically wants to genetically modify the human species so that they don’t have Alzheimer’s disease,” he said. “I’m really surprised he’s talking about it again.”
Joy Zhang, founding director of the Center for Global Science and Epistemic Justice at the University of Kent in Britain, said the proposal appeared to be “more of a publicity stunt than a grounded research agenda”.
“However, we must take these public claims with caution, as they may, if at all, confuse patients and their families, and tarnish the reputation not only of science in China, but also of the global research effort in this field. domain.” said .
In response to questions from CNN, he said he was now “gathering input from scientists and bioethicists” and did not have a timeline for the study.
“I’ll look at the Alzheimer’s proposal later. I will not perform any experiments until I get permission from the government and also get approval from an international ethics committee made up of bioethicists from the United States and Europe,” he said. he told CNN via email.
“I would like to emphasize that this is a preclinical study, no embryos will be used for pregnancy in this study. The investigation will be open and transparent, and all results and progress of the experiment will be published. on Twitter,” he said.
He did not respond to questions about whether he was limited to doing certain jobs in China.
CNN has also reached out to China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Health Commission for comment.
Controversy and response to gene editing experiments
In 2018, He, a former researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed to have used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR to modify human twin embryos in hopes of protecting them from HIV. A third genetically modified baby was also born from He’s experimentation, a court in Shenzhen later said.
The research has sparked fierce outcry over the ethics of using new and potentially dangerous technologies on people and the risk of passing unwanted mutations on not just to children, but potentially to any future offspring. He also expressed concerns about opening the door to a potentially revolutionary future for “conceived children”.
In recent media interviews, he said he felt he had moved “too hastily” in conducting the investigation, giving few details about the children, while indicating that they lived a “normal” life.
Genetic manipulation of human embryos, both viable and non-viable, is often strictly controlled globally and some countries ban all such research, experts say.
But there is a fierce global debate over whether to allow genome editing of human embryos to treat serious genetic diseases or to pursue research.
Scientists say genome editing, even in adults, holds promise for one day treating diseases that are currently difficult to treat or cure, such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell disease.
Chinese law does not allow genetically modified human embryos used in research to be implanted in humans or to develop for longer than 14 days. Any genetic modification for breeding purposes has also long been prohibited.
Since 2019, a broader set of bioscience regulations in China have added more legal controls and ethical standards to such research, including a major update to national bioethics guidelines earlier this year.
There has also been a strong backlash against He within the Chinese scientific community.
In March, more than 200 Chinese scholars issued a statement in response to his public activities, including what they called a “smashing campaign”. marketing misleading” of He about his alleged rare disease research plans.
They condemned He’s “attitude and refusal to reflect on his criminal actions of violating gene editing ethics and regulations” and called on regulatory authorities to launch a new investigation into the ” alleged violation of scientific integrity, ethical standards, laws “and regulations”.
“Ethical boundaries will not be crossed,” they wrote.
Regarding the future of He’s research, Canadian bioethicist Françoise Baylis of Dalhousie University said many questions need to be considered, from whether he has the necessary scientific expertise to test the hypothesis or to know if he can be trusted that he will follow the rules of research involving humans. .
“People may learn from their mistakes and change their behavior… but many fear that He Jiankui has learned from his past mistakes,” Baylis said.
— CNN’s Martha Zhou contributed to this report.