In Search of Limits in the Age of Genome Editing: A 5-Year Retrospective - Statement on He Jiankui Participation

On May 14, 2022 (the second day of our convening In Search of Limits in the Age of Genome Editing: A 5-Year Retrospective), the Global Observatory for Genome Editing conducted a small, closed-door meeting of a select group of invitees to discuss the aftermath of the 2018 experiment with human germline genome editing in China. During a portion of that meeting, we hosted Dr. He Jiankui, the experiment’s designer, to respond to questions from the group about his reasons and motivations for conducting the work.

The meeting had three aims. First, we sought to develop a fuller understanding of the circumstances under which an experiment that was later universally condemned as outside the norms of science nevertheless took place: how was it conceived, what motivated it, and what broader context convinced Dr. Jiankui that he was advancing science for the public good? Second, we wished to evaluate the impacts of the experiment in a variety of domains, including scientific research, media, and bioethics. Finally, we wanted to explore the event’s implications for the future of genome editing ethics and governance. Dr. Jiankui was in attendance via Zoom only during the initial session in which we inquired into the circumstances behind the 2018 experiment.

The meeting, which included influential scholars and practitioners in the field, was held under the Chatham House Rule in order to facilitate frank, honest and forthright discussion. Our purpose was not to find fault, denounce or embarrass. In keeping with the mission of the Observatory, we aimed rather to step back in a spirit of humility and to reflect, learn, and move forward in more productive and enlightened directions.

The insights drawn from this meeting will inform the ongoing work of the Observatory on ethical governance of genome editing and will figure in future publications and analyses.