When I saw the news that He Jiankui and colleagues had been sentenced to three years in prison for the first human embryo gene editing and implantation experiments, all I could think was, “How will we look back at what they had done in 100 years?”

When the scientist described his research and revealed the births of gene edited twin girls at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in late November 2018, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning in Oakland, Calif., watching it. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep for a few days and couldn’t stop thinking about his achievement.

This was the first time a viable human embryo was edited and allowed to live past 14 days, much less the first time such an embryo was implanted and the baby brought to term.

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The majority of scientists were outraged at the ethics of what had taken place, despite having very little information on what had actually occurred.

To me, no matter how abhorrent one views the research, it represents a substantial step forward in human embryo editing. Now there is a clear path forward that anyone can follow when before it had been only a dream.

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He Jiankui’s work has been subjected to strong and sometimes vicious criticism. The big unknown is whether the children born from it will experience any harmful effects, though there is no evidence to lead us to suspect that they will.

Even after He’s work was made public, the U.S. did not create any laws directly outlawing human embryo editing and implantation. The only thing standing in the way of doing this is gaining FDA approval for an investigational new drug application. Current federal funding guidelines prevent the FDA from approving such experimentation, but how long will it be until that changes? Most certainly less than 100 years.

Let’s be honest, though. The FDA doesn’t need to approve these experiments as most countries in the world do not have laws against human embryo editing. A scientist and embryologist in Russia has proclaimed he is working on editing embryos for implantation — meaning that you are just a $500 plane flight from embryo editing being legal.

I imagine that the scientists, medical doctors, and biotechnologists reading this essay will almost unanimously proclaim that He Jiankui will never be viewed in a positive way. What they fail to see is that societal ethics change, especially over long time frames. When the outrage has faded with the passage of time, what is left?

As long as the children He Jiankui engineered haven’t been harmed by the experiment, he is just a scientist who forged some documents to convince medical doctors to implant gene-edited embryos. The 4-minute mile of human genetic engineering has been broken. It will happen again.

The academic establishment and federal funding regulations have made it easy to control the number of heretical scientists. We rarely if ever hear of individuals pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of science.

The rise of the biohacker is changing that.

A biohacker is a scientist who exists outside academia or an institution. By this definition, He Jiankui is a biohacker. I’m also part of this community, and helped build an organization to support it.

Such individuals have much more freedom than “traditional” scientists because scientific regulation in the U.S. is very much institutionally enforced by the universities, research organizations, or grant-giving agencies. But if you are your own institution and don’t require federal grants, who can police you? If you don’t tell anyone what you are doing, there is no way to stop you — especially since there is no government agency actively trying to stop people from editing embryos.

The level of gene-editing sophistication on a budget is increasing rapidly. People are already editing human cells using a $150 inverted microscope without negative-pressure fume hoods and CO2 incubators. The requirements of embryo injection are minimal: a microinjector, micropipette, and microscope. All of these can be purchased on eBay and assembled for a few thousand dollars. Or if you have $43,500, just buy this “IVF ready” setup on eBay. You can practice embryo injection using zebrafish or other eggs or embryos that are readily available online.

What about the gene editing part? If companies like Synthego won’t sell you the Cas9 protein, you can easily purify it and make your own guide RNA for a few hundred dollars. The hardest thing to obtain would be human embryos, but with no laws against buying and selling them, a few emails is all it would take. CNY Fertility sells donor embryos for $1,000 each, and that doesn’t even include bulk pricing. A few thousand dollars for sequencing and screening and that’s it.

You can probably have the embryo transferred to a human by a medical doctor in the U.S. if you don’t tell him or her what you’ve done, or you can do it in another country. Embryo transfer itself doesn’t require any sophisticated equipment, so maybe someone could DIY that also.

In other words, not much is stopping people from doing embryo editing and implantation. So it won’t be long until the next human embryo is edited and implanted.

In the next 100 years, thousands of edited embryos will be implanted and become children. I believe that embryo editing and implantation will someday be viewed much as how IVF is viewed today. When a human embryo being edited and implanted is no longer interesting enough for a news story, will we still view He Jiankui as a villain?

I don’t think we will. But even if we do, He Jiankui will be remembered and talked about more than any scientist of our day. Although that may seriously aggravate many scientists and bioethicists, I think he deserves that honor.

Josiah Zayner is CEO of The ODIN, a company that teaches people how to do genetic engineering in their homes.

  • The whole world watches breathlessly as one scientist goes to jail for making one genetic change in two embryos. Meanwhile, 125,000 embryos around the world are killed in abortion clinics every day…

  • For future biohackers in migraine / primary headache research:
    DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.32676.83849
    DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.36059.11047

  • It’s one thing experimenting on yourself out of a commitment to the advancement of science; quite another risking the health and well-being of another generation. There has to be a limit to scientific exploration just as there has to be freedom to challenge institutional limits.

  • Josiah, you’ve taken the time to write a sensationalized article for your own personal gain. As many have pointed out your arguments are deeply flawed but I think we all recognize that those arguments weren’t the point of this article. The point of this article is to do yet more sensational hand waving to draw attention and funding to yourself. I’ll be waiting for your next stunt, maybe a flashy on-stage injection of a “gene therapy” a la Aaron Traywick?

  • “ As long as the children He Jiankui engineered haven’t been harmed by the experiment, he is just a scientist who forged some documents to convince medical doctors to implant gene-edited embryos.”

    A. The idea that the children may not be harmed completely ignores current research regarding the off-target effects of CRISPR/cas-9 gene editing.
    B. Scientists who “just forge some documents” are often stripped of their credentials, because it’s incredibly important that the scientific community holds itself to a specific set of guidelines, specifically when human testing is involved.

    Your discussion of this topic is deeply flawed, and considerably out of line with current bioethics practices followed, AND it ignores the moratorium that the entire gene editing community put on human subjects because of his actions.

  • As a biohacker in migraine and other primary headaches, I am another heretical scientist without an institution or grant funding to clutch or cripple my work and my thinking. Migraine affects 1 billion people worldwide (1/5th to 1/6th of humankind). I have just placed my most innovative work at ResearchGate absolutely without any institutional ethical review board pontificating about something they least understand.

    Jiankui was set upon by the establishment who gave no credence to his work, tried hard not to understand the science behind his Earth-shattering advance in gene editing, and used every means available to their puny personalities to belittle an “outsider” including the Trojan Horse of ethics. The same work in another country — so-called advanced country–would have been praised to the heavens as brilliant, an issue fit for the Nobel Prize and beyond as the first real management strategy for the below-the-belt epidemic.

    Jiankui was alone in his battle against the very largely biased and angry group from a certain section of the Earth that bayed for, and got, his blood eventually.

    Jiankui imprisonment is no shame. He will remain a medical hero long after we all are forgotten in the sands of time.

    ORCID ID 0000-0002-6770-5916

    • Vinod : you are yet another crazy, loose-canon science idiot, wildly and unjustifiably at just the whim of your own will potentially changing the human race. You too should be stripped of any “credentials” you might have, and locked up.

  • As a response to some other comments, it’s not fair to say that he has little or even 0 knowledge of genome editing. I’m not sure where the crash course news came from, but what he did attend at Berkeley in 2017 was a closed-door symposium on the ethic issues of CRISPR-mediated human genome editing, with participants inluding experts in genome editing, ethics, sociology, as well as US government representatives, and He was invited to give a talk. In fact, for me that was the most outraging and irony part, since if you’ve checked He’s blog back then, the topic of his talk was “Current safety issues with CRISPR-Cas9 techniques”, with a solid door slamming conclusion “Any activity of human germline genome editing is extremely irresponsible right now.” And he set off recruiting volunteer parents and creating genome edited babys almost immediately after flying back home, tracing back the timeline now.

  • Should at least wait until cas9 or what ever is perfected. Abide with etics of a scientist.
    It is not time to jump in, especially when not perfected.
    Yikes

    • @Jean
      Perfection is not demanded of any other drug or medical technique, and indeed has never been achieved.

  • Agree or disagree, Pandora’s Box is open. These decisions will be made neither by governments, nor a plurality of citizens, nor academic institutions. They will be made by individuals with sufficient training or sufficient wealth to hire skilled services. You can disagree with the author on the ethics of what He Jiankui did, but you’d be (mostly) missing the point. Josiah is correct about the fact that embryo editing is coming very soon, and for many applications beyond curing genetic disease. Attempts at enhancement will be successful and will be embraced early, especially among the wealthy. If you need evidence of this, look no further than the recent college admissions scandals. The world is not ready for what’s coming. Most people don’t even realize how close George Church is to reversing aging in humans, and the societal impacts of that may far exceed a little gene editing. Take solace in the fact that the technology is democratized, but buckle up because it’s about to get both exciting and ethically complicated!!

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