In early 2018, Dr. He Jiankui, a then-34-year-old Chinese biophysicist, traveled to an Arizona science conference to meet with one of his heroes, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson, a man who first proposed the double helix structure of DNA molecules back in 1953.
Dr. He was in the midst of a big experiment of his own, genetically engineering embryos to eliminate their risk from disease. It was something that hadn’t been attempted before (or since), and He was having reservations.
“Do you think that that’s a good thing to do?” he asked Watson, writing down the question because the 90-year-old geneticist couldn’t understand his accent.
Watson responded with just three words: “Make people better.”
“That gave me the courage to be the person to ‘break (the) glass,’” Dr. He told filmmakers in a new documentary, Make People Better, out December 13th on iTunes, Prime, and elsewhere. “This technology, it could benefit society. It’s an end goal, to help people. So, I did that.”
‘Make People Better,’ screening at the Roxie Saturday as part of the Green Film Festival, is as much a mystery as it is a documentary.
By John Seal Oct. 06, 2022, 1:32 p.m.
In Walter Besant’s 1888 novel The Inner House, a scientist makes a medical discovery that allows human beings to live forever; his discovery is adopted by the state and shared with the people, but future generations find themselves devolving into brainless, loveless and purposeless automatons. While the novel is poorly written and resolutely Victorian, it does make a good point: Our mortality is our driving force. For better or worse, we don’t have great deal of time to navel gaze.
In Make People Better (screening at the Roxie Theater at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 9, as part of this year’s Green Film Festival of San Francisco), we learn that 21st century scientists are working on gene therapy that — while unlikely to guarantee immortality — may be able to fix flaws in our DNA that currently cause hereditary disease and birth defects. The film focuses on idealistic Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who — inspired by American geneticist George Church (currently involved in a CIA-funded effort to resurrect the woolly mammoth) — took the science to its logical conclusion by “creating” genetically edited twin babies for an anonymous, HIV-infected Chinese couple.
Directed by Cody Sheedy, Make People Better is as much a mystery as it is a documentary. While focusing on the serious ethical questions raised by He’s work, it also criticizes the scientific community that opportunistically abandoned him and the Chinese government that disappeared and then imprisoned him. It’s captivating and edge-of-your-seat stuff that reminded me of one of Frankenstein’s most powerful moments.
THE PLAYLIST – May 4, 2022 – “’Make People Better’ Review: A Fascinating Look At The Ethics Surrounding Human Genome Modification [Hot Docs]” by Christian Gallichio
REALSCREEN – May 5, 2022 – “Hot Docs ’22: “Make People Better” explores gene editing and ethics of ‘designer babies’” by Justin Anderson
Gleaming skyscrapers reflect the neon lights of a bustling metropolis. A rogue genetic scientist is said to be performing unethical and possibly illegal experiments on human subjects. Shadowy figures who might work for a powerful government — or an even more powerful corporation — close in on their prey hiding in an anonymous hotel. It sounds like the stuff of a globe-trotting cyberpunk thriller, but it’s actually the new documentary Make People Better, from filmmaker Cody Sheehy.
IMDB – May 4, 2022 – “’Make People Better’ Review: A Fascinating Look At The Ethics Surrounding Human Genome Modification [Hot Docs]” by Christian Gallichio
*Pick up from The Playlist
Exploring the contentious debate surrounding germline editing within human embryos, Cody Sheehy’s documentary “Make People Better” is, like its subject, a complicated dive into the practicalities and ethics of genetic modification. Using the story of Dr. He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist who created the first genetically edited babies — Lulu and Nana — in late 2018, as a guiding framework, Sheehy’s film is perhaps too wonky in its delivery, but its subject matter nevertheless makes for a fascinating dive into the ethical quandaries around human genetic modification, even if it is a bit one-sided in the end.