Should he have done more?

Here’s an interesting problem in bioethics: a person knows the field, and has an appropriate response to an individual making a serious ethical lapse, but he doesn’t report it to other authorities. Should he have?

He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who used CRISPR techniques on human embryos, shared his ‘success’ in emails to Craig Mello, a Nobel-prize winning biologist, who then replied a few times with regret.

“I’m glad for you, but I’d rather not be kept in the loop on this,” Mello wrote, according to the AP.

“You are risking the health of the child you are editing… I just don’t see why you are doing this. I wish your patient the best of luck for a healthy pregnancy.”

“I think you are taking a big risk and I do not want anyone to think that I approve of what you are doing,” wrote Mello, who didn’t reply to a request for comment from the AP.

“I’m sorry I cannot be more supportive of this effort, I know you mean well.”

Good for Mello that he was immediately aware of the problematic nature of the research. I think my response would involve a lot more ALL CAPS sentences and a heavy use of exclamation points, and probably some profanity, but then, I’m not a Nobel-prize winning scientist. I would have also said confidentiality be damned, and contacted a swarm of other scientists and the major scientific societies and given the heads up, with a suggestion that everyone ought to be prepared to make a statement on this kind of genetic manipulation when it finally goes public. Maybe Mello did make some quiet notifications to a select few, the article doesn’t say, but it does mention this:

Mello didn’t go public with the revelation – and stayed on as an adviser to He’s company until news broke about the controversial experiment.

Yikes. He’s company. Because of course every biomedical advance must be coupled to a mechanism for extracting profit from it. That’s a great big fat bioethical problem lurking under everything.


  1. doubtthat says

    On a related note, this week was the anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I saw a number of sources telling the stories of two folks who tried to stop the launch:

    These are difficult positions to be in. I certainly think the engineers trying to stop the Challenger from launching worked a little harder than Mello. The Challenger team also faced a much larger, more powerful bureaucracy above them. Mello didn’t even make the situation known to anyone above him or with any ability to intervene.
    It also makes me think of the Pinker-demolishing existential threat theorist – this is how one of those nightmare scenarios builds – one rogue dude doing something dangerous and a bunch of people sitting on their hands.

  2. says

    Absolutely. He should have done everything in his power to stop this from happening. Instead he asked not to be further informed about it. Appalling.

  3. says

    As far as I’m concerned, he should have reported him.

    And as far as I’m concerned, those two girls are probably goners – they probably won’t make 40 I suspect. He is probably in some PRC dungeon somewhere and frankly I cannot give a shit about that.