Chinese scientist He Jiankui

Before gene-editing controversy, Chinese scientist He Jiankui was rising star who received 41.5 million yuan in government grants

  • Academic and budding entrepreneur developed cheap, fast gene sequencer some said would shake the industry
PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 December, 2018, 11:05am

Before he fell from grace for his controversial claim to have altered the genes of two babies before they were born, Chinese scientist He Jiankui was a rising star, the man behind a potentially industry-shaking genome sequencer and the recipient of millions in grants from the mainland authorities.

Following his announcement last week of the birth of reportedly HIV-resistant twin girls to a HIV-positive father and HIV-negative mother in November, the academic has found himself the subject of an investigation by the Chinese government, with all his research activities suspended.

Institutions have shunned him – the Southern University of Science and Technology, where He is an associate professor, and Shenzhen Luohu People’s Hospital, where an embryologist involved in the research works, have denied any knowledge of the project.

Facing his colleagues at an international conference in Hong Kong soon after his project unleashed a global deluge of criticism and concern, He defended his experiment and expressed pride at the results.

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That same pride was on display one year ago, when the scientist and budding entrepreneur launched a faster and cheaper solution for clinical genome sequencing, posing a challenge to the titans of the industry.

“Some people said we shook the global gene-sequencing industry. Right. It’s me. He Jiankui. I did it,” he said with great excitement in an interview with CCTV in 2017 after his invention was launched.

The authorities appeared to share his enthusiasm. Public records reviewed by the Post show that from 2015, He had received 41.5 million yuan (US$5.96 million) in government funding for his research on genome sequencing – a required technology for gene-editing research.

Most of the funding – 40 million yuan – was provided in 2016, when He’s research team was selected as part of the Shenzhen government’s Peacock Plan, which offers support for top-notch overseas innovation talents and teams. A separate Shenzhen official research grant of 1.5 million yuan was given to him in 2015.

Shenzhen Direct Genomics Biotechnology, a start-up chaired and controlled by He, developed the GenoCare analyser, which uses third-generation genome-sequencing technology.

The firm said the cost of genome sequencing with GenoCare was only US$100 dollars, about 10 per cent of what it would cost with second-generation sequencers developed by overseas researchers. Despite the lower price tag, the company promised the method was 10 times faster and had better testing quality.

In 2016, an article published in Nature Biotechnology, a scientific journal, said Direct Genomics was mounting a challenge to sequencing giants, including San Diego-based Illumina, with a low-cost sequencer for clinical use.

The sequencer eventually brought He dozens of funding opportunities and industry networks, according to a CCTV interview with him a month after the launch of GenoCare last August. He was described as “the new ace in the global gene industry”.

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Under a collaboration agreement reached in August this year among Shenzhen Luohu Hospital Group, Geisinger Health System in the US, and Direct Genomics, He’s sequencers will be used in China’s first public genome-sequencing pilot project in public hospitals in Luohu, including Shenzhen Luohu People’s Hospital.

An estimated 3,500 local residents will be tested each year for health management, disease prevention and scientific research, following in the footsteps of a similar project in the United States.

GenoCare is also expected to be used in hospitals for clinical cancer gene testing, prenatal diagnosis and genetic disease checks for newborns.

Dr He was conscious of the potential impact of his research.

“The subversive innovation of technology is like this. It can destroy the giant aircraft carrier in front in minutes, but the next disruption can also kill us in minutes,” he told CCTV when interviewed about his gene sequencer.

The scientist said that nobody had believed he could do this two years ago, not even his supervisor, whom he did not name.

“It’s not that he did not believe in my ability,” He said. “He just did not believe that I could succeed in China.”

After the sequencer was launched, He said, 26 investors approached him within a week.

“A lot of medical labs, hospitals called us for sequencing.”

He said the company had received 700 orders, and mass production would begin the following year after a production line in Luohu was completed, capable of making 1,000 analysers a year.

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The roots of He’s early success went back at least a decade. After graduating with a physics degree from the University of Science and Technology of China in 2006, he went to Rice University in the US to do his PhD under the supervision of Michael Deem, a professor of physics and bioengineering.

Deem, who later joined the scientific advisory board of Direct Genomics, is now under investigation by Rice University for alleged involvement in He’s gene-editing research, according to a CNN report.

He conducted his postdoctoral research in genome sequencing at Stanford University with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics. Quake was the inventor of a sequencer that directly measured DNA and RNA sequences at the single-molecule level without amplification. His firm went bankrupt in 2012, but the technology is being reapplied in the GenoCare sequencer.

In 2012, He returned to China and worked as an associate professor at the biology department of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen and co-founded Direct Genomics.

Four years later, He told the media there were plans to list the company in Hong Kong or on Nasdaq as it had acquired venture capital of 100 million yuan in that time. He expressed appreciation for the strong support from the Shenzhen government, noting that the start-up, which started with a million yuan in angel funding, had twice escaped bankruptcy due to lack of funding. In 2017, the firm’s estimated value reached 150 million yuan.

In April this year, the firm received 218 million yuan in its Series A funding round.

The Direct Genomics website states that one of its key research areas is gene editing. However, He has denied that the company has any connection to or knowledge of the gene-editing work done on human embryos.

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Dennis Lo Yuk-ming, professor of chemical pathology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that after Quake first made single-molecule sequencing commercially available, there had been several sequencers using the same technique in the US and Europe, but with different levels of accuracy.

Lo said a review of GenoCare’s performance by an independent scientist was needed, adding that a sequencer needed to be comparable to Illumina’s, which has 99.9 per cent accuracy, to make a real impact on the market as the human genome has three billion nucleotide pairs.

“A slight difference in accuracy will cause errors on many pairs. Sequencing needs to be as accurate as possible,” he said.

In 2017, He co-released a paper with Deem and others scientists with the sequencing data of the E coli genome using GenoCare. They claimed a consensus sequence of 99.71 per cent nucleotide identity to Illumina’s, with the conclusion that GenoCare was reliable, with strong potential for clinical application. The paper was not peer reviewed.