Chinese scientist gets jail for rogue gene editing

A punishment is handed down for performing shocking research on human embryos.

Image source: vchal/arek_malang/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • In November 2018, a Chinese scientist claimed he'd flouted ethics and the law to edit genes in human embryos.
  • Other Chinese scientists call He Jiankui's research "crazy."
  • Three gene-modified babies are now living in China, future uncertain.

The scientific community has been proceeding with caution as it explores the potential of gene editing. The high risk of unintended consequences, both immediate and long-term, has prompted reticence regarding experimentation with humans. And then there's He Jiankui, who announced in 2018 that he'd genetically modified two human embryos, twin sisters, "Lulu" and "Nana," born in October of that year. Last week, a Chinese court sentenced He to three years in jail and a fine of three million Chinese yuan, about $430,000, for engaging in "illegal medical practices." The court also confirmed rumors that He had modified the genome of a third child, likely born in June or July 2019.

He's experiments

He tells the world

Image source: Anthony Wallace/Getty

When He first announced his research in November 2018 at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, the scientific community was stunned at this deliberate flaunting of scientific consensus and Chinese law. A statement from 122 Chinese scientists referred to He's work as "crazy" and called it "a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science."

He, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, claimed to have used CRISPR-cas9 in an attempt to provide embryos with immunity to HIV. The DNA in 16 embryos was altered, and 11 of these were used in six implant attempts that eventually led to the successful pregnancy of three infants.

After the announcement, Julian Savulescu of University of Oxford told The Guardian, "If true, this experiment is monstrous," adding that, "There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it. This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit." While there are HIV infections in China, there was no indication that the embryos had been infected.

In his announcement, He claimed to have inserted a mutated form of the CCR5 gene into the embryos' genome, a particular mutation that makes a small number of people immune to HIV. According to Kiran Musunuru of University of Pennsylvania, though, the mutation has a nasty downside: People who have it are at higher risk of contracting other, non-HIV viruses, and of dying of the flu. So, while potentially shielding his subjects from HIV, He was, in essence, consigning them to a lifetime of enhanced vulnerability to all sorts of more common infections.

It's likely, however, that He never actually produced or inserted the CCR5 mutation in any event. Excerpts of He's documentation published in MIT Technology Review suggest that what He created were some new kinds of CCR5 mutations, as well as unintended gene mutations elsewhere in the genome, and the effect of all of these edits are anyone's guess. After reviewing the excerpts, University of California, Berkeley's Fyodor Urnov concluded He's claim was "a deliberate falsehood."

What the court said

He Jiankui and his genetic research team

Image source: VCG/Getty

Two of He's colleagues involved in the research were also convicted by the Shenzhen court. According to Chinese news outlet Xinhua, the court found:

"The three accused did not have the proper certification to practice medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment. They've crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics."

The court also ruled that He had forged documents from an ethics review panel.

The other two researchers found guilty were Zhang Renli, who was sentenced to two years in prison and fined one million yuan (about $143,000), and Qin Jinzhou, whose 18-month sentence came with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan ($71,000) fine.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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