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When science spills onto social media

Apr. 21, 2022, 9:30 AM

by Paul Govern

On Nov. 25, 2018, Chinese biophysics researcher He Jiankui, PhD, on YouTube announced having edited the genomes of human embryos with the intention of conferring lifetime immunity from HIV infection, claiming that two twin newborn girls were thriving with the edits.  

Promptly condemned by scientists in China and elsewhere, He ultimately received a three-year prison sentence and a $430,000 fine in connection with this first reported use of heritable human genome editing.  

Congning Ni, ME, Zhijun Yin, PhD, MS, and colleagues used social media posts to examine public perception of the experiment. Their report appears in the Journal of Medical Internet Research 

On Twitter, Sina Weibo (China), Reddit and YouTube, among commenters with a clear stance, opposition to the experiment ran at 86%, 85%, 61% and 53%, respectively, showing greater division than there appeared to have been among academics. Using informatics techniques, the study examines how the discussion varied across the four platforms over the seven months following He’s announcement.

Others on the study included Zhiyu Wan, PhD, Chao Yan, PhD, Yongtai Liu, MS, Ellen Wright Clayton, JD, MD, and Bradley Malin, PhD. The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health (HG009034).

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