First, an update about what’s new in my world of writing.
All three of my Erica Rosen MD Trilogy titles are now available on Audible. I think those of you who enjoy audiobooks will find the narrator, Onyx Volcan, to be quite entertaining. Each book is between nine and ten hours.
Another short story of mine, Secrets, is serialized on Kindle Vella. Kindle Vella stories can be read directly on the Amazon site. One chapter will be released each Monday until all twelve chapters are published. The first three chapters are free. After that, there is a nominal charge. Most of the proceeds will go to provide Jeff Bezos with more funding for his outer space ventures or perhaps another yacht.
Links to short stories and novels are on my website, under “short stories” and “novels”, respectively.
Now for a little follow-up on He Jiankui. You may not know who he (or should I write “He”) is. It’s confusing as He’s last name is spelled the same as the pronoun “he.” I surely do know who he is, and I recently learned that He’s back in the public eye.
As many of you know, the first novel in my Erica Rosen MD Trilogy, Unnatural, was about children who were genetically engineered in a secret Chinese government program. Note that this is a novel, i.e. fiction. When I wrote it, I thought that while possible, no one had dared to do such a thing— perform human embryonic stem cell genetic engineering— but it would make a good story. Certainly no one would actually do such a thing for years to come because of the risks involved as well as the world-wide moratorium on such a practice.
Boy, was I wrong. As I was editing the completed first draft of the book, the news of He Jiankui’s announcement spread quickly. A Chinese scientist, he proudly claimed to have performed human genetic engineering on three embryos, implanted all of them in women, and the resulting infants were about to be born. Needless to say, this changed the nature of my book’s plot from something original, that had never been done, to something that had already been performed. I swore a lot, thinking this made my story less compelling. A few days later, I had a change of attitude. My story was still interesting, but I would need to insert something about He's work. I did that, and in the end didn’t feel like his work detracted from my novel. It only reinforced the reason I picked China to be the site of the first embryonic stem cell gene editing—a country with an authoritarian government, but with advanced scientific capabilities.
While He didn’t edit the same genes targeted in my novel, there were some similarities between what he did and what happened in Unnatural. The gene He targeted was not life-saving. He claimed he wanted to make the children resistant to HIV, but the real reason was probably different—mutations in the gene he altered are thought by some to improve intelligence and/or memory (in rats it has been shown to improve cognition and memory after strokes and traumatic brain injury). A mutation of this gene occurs naturally in some people of European descent, and when they have two copies of this gene, they are resistant to many (but not all) viruses that cause HIV. On the other hand, they appear to be more susceptible to death from West Nile Virus, and, possibly, influenza.
He received world-wide condemnation. While the health and well-being of the children is kept secret, scientists analyzing the data supplied have concluded that mistakes were made. The changes in the targeted gene do not result in the same change found naturally in Europeans, and it is unknown what effect this “new” protein will have. In addition, there is great concern that off-target changes were made in the DNA of the embryos.
Very recently, He Jiankui has reappeared in the news. He supposedly served a three-year sentence in China, with some sort of confinement. I’m not sure if this is true, or just a public relations ploy carried out by the Chinese government. While at first, those in charge professed outrage and promised severe punishment, possibly a death penalty, the sentence was much less severe. It later came out that there is evidence the Chinese government funded He’s experiments. Perhaps, due to the world-wide reaction, He became the scapegoat.
He now admits that mistakes were made—he performed the procedure without considering the downside. His lack of caution may have been due to the fact that he is not a physician. Like the children in my novel, the victims of his gene editing scheme will need to be monitored for life, as they are at risk for unintended consequences. For all we know, they may already be showing signs of something that went awry, possibly suffering from the consequences of He’s recklessness. Only time will tell if the world will ever learn the truth about the condition of these three children. One thing is for sure—we haven’t heard the last of efforts to edit human embryos.