China’s gene editing Frankenstein He Jiankui, dubbed ‘mad genius’ by colleagues, had early dreams of becoming Chinese Einstein

  • Controversial scientist facing international condemnation for ‘crazy’ and ‘unethical’ human experiment came from humble beginnings
  • Gave up physics when he realised its ‘golden era was over’
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 7:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 12:40pm

The man who shocked the world with claims to have created the first genetically edited humans – HIV-immune twin girls – has been dubbed China’s Frankenstein. But in his school days he had dreams of becoming the country’s Einstein.

He Jiankui, described by colleagues as a “mad genius”, had an early interest in physics. As a high school student he maintained a small laboratory at home, he told the Thousand Talents Programme magazine earlier this year.

He was born in Xinhua county, Hunan province – one of southern China’s poorest regions – to a farming family. Despite his humble background, he worked his way up to the best high school in the county, according to a report by online news platform Jiemian.com.

Chinese scientists condemn ‘crazy’ and ‘unethical’ gene-editing experiment

He went on to graduate from University of Science and Technology of China with a physics degree and, armed with a state scholarship, travelled to the US to pursue his dream.

But, once there, his Einstein ambitions evaporated when, He said, he realised the “golden era of physics was over”.

Instead he switched disciplines, studying biophysics at Rice University in Houston, where he first worked with CRISPR, the gene editing technology used to create the HIV-immune twins.

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He then moved to Stanford University, where he studied with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics, who specialises in DNA sequencing but not gene editing.

The Beijing News reported He was strongly inspired by Quake, who developed the first single-molecule DNA sequencing technology, which would later become the basis for He’s genetic testing company.

He returned to Shenzhen in 2012 and took up a research post with Southern University of Science and Technology, but he was also brimming with business ideas.

Three years later, he founded two genetic testing companies, Direct Genomics and Vienomics, both claiming to use gene sequencing for medical purposes.

Quake was listed as a scientific adviser to Direct Genomics, but told The New York Times he did not have any connection to the company.

Direct Genomics markets “GenoCare”, described on its website as a third-generation single molecule DNA sequencer which it also claims is the first single molecule sequencing system for clinical use.

He is also listed as a majority stakeholder in several other companies, mostly subsidiaries of the two firms he founded, according to Beijing-based business data search firm Tianyancha.

He has been compared by colleagues to Tesla founder Elon Musk. “Smart, crazy, ingenious, these are the best words to describe him,” a colleague told Jiemian.com.

He is audacious in his choice of business partners. He and his experiments have been linked to the “Putian Group” of private hospitals, famous in China for providing services to patients with sexually transmitted diseases and skin disorders.

It was at Putian’s Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women and Children’s Hospital, where He reportedly carried out the trials for his gene editing project, although the hospital has denied any connection to him.

As recently as 2017, He said in a blog post that gene editing was still unsafe to be trialled on humans.

But, one day before he was due to speak at a summit on human genome editing in Hong Kong, He posted a video to YouTube in which he claimed a pair of healthy twin sisters, Lulu and Nana, were born in China this month from embryos edited to switch off an HIV-related gene.

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So far, He has not provided any evidence to back up the claims and his work has yet to be published or peer-reviewed, a key part of the scientific process which enables fellow scientists to assess the validity of experiments.

According to Associated Press, He has no experience with human experiments.

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The controversial researcher’s announcement on Monday has been widely denounced by scientists and fellow geneticists from both overseas and in China for violating ethics, and more than 120 Chinese scientists have signed an open letter describing his experiments as “crazy”.

He’s company, Direct Genomics, has also denied any connection to the experiment, The Beijing News reported.