Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who created the world’s first “gene-edited” babies, has been sentenced to three years in prison and fined 3 million yuan (US$430,000).
He, along with two others named Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, was convicted by a Shenzhen court on Monday on charges related to the “illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction”, which led to the births of three genetically edited babies, according to state news agency Xinhua.
The scientist, from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed in November last year that he had manipulated the embryos with a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR in a bid to make them immune to HIV infection.
He – who has been called “China’s Frankenstein” – dropped the bombshell that healthy twin girls had been born with edited genes via a video posted on the internet. He went silent for two days before revealing the existence of another pregnancy involving a gene-edited baby.
He faced an onslaught of questions and criticisms from the media and his peers, most of whom raised doubts about his claims or condemned his brashness and lack of ethical and medical concerns about a clinical procedure that is banned in most countries, including China.
“None of the three defendants acquired doctor’s qualifications. [They] craved fame and fortune, and deliberately went against the country’s regulations on scientific research and medical management. [They] went beyond the bottom lines of scientific research and medical ethics,” according to the Nanshan District Court in Shenzhen.
The court also found He had forged documents to get past the ethics review, and had fabricated information so that medical doctors had unknowingly implanted gene-edited embryos into two women.
Zhang, who worked for a medical organisation in Guangdong province, was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1 million yuan. Qin, from another medical organisation in Shenzhen, received an 18-month sentence, but with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan fine.
All three defendants were reported to have admitted to the charges, while people involved in the illegal embryo planting process would be blacklisted and permanently banned from related jobs.
The Xinhua article said the public had been kept in the dark about the court process to protect the privacy of certain people involved, but added that the defendants’ families, together with representatives from the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference had attended the hearing.
He was detained by Chinese police in January 2019 and a preliminary investigation concluded he had “organised a project team that included foreign staff, which intentionally avoided surveillance and used technology of uncertain safety and effectiveness to perform human embryo gene-editing activity with the purpose of reproduction, which is officially banned in the country”.
The 35-year old He, from a poor farming family in Hunan province, went on to graduate from the University of Science and Technology of China with a physics degree and, armed with a state scholarship, travelled to the US to pursue his scientific dream.
He switched disciplines in the US to study biophysics at Rice University in Houston, where he first worked with CRISPR, the gene editing technology which he used to modify the embryo DNA. He then moved to Stanford University, where he studied with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics, who specialises in DNA sequencing but not gene editing.
The last time He appeared in public was when he attended a genome summit in Hong Kong on November 28 last year. He told the audience he was proud to have used the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to change the genes of the twin girls he named as “Lulu” and “Nana” who had been born that month.
“For this specific case, I feel proud actually,” the Chinese scientist said of the experiment. “I feel proudest because Mark [the twins’ father] thought he had lost hope for life.”
Between March 2017 and November 2018, He recruited eight couples to participate in his experiment but one pair dropped out.
All fathers in the seven couples who took part in the project were HIV positive while the mothers were HIV-negative. Three babies were born as a result.
The Guangdong government has said its will keep the twins under medical observation.
Under guidelines introduced in 2003, China requires gene editing projects to have the approval of ethics committees at related research institutes. The guidelines also specify that genetically edited embryos should not be transplanted into a woman or another species. The principles were in line with international standards for human gene modifications.
China released updated draft regulations on gene editing and other potentially risky new biomedical technologies in February this year.
In early December, the MIT Technology Review released excerpts of a manuscript submitted by He to a Western journal about a year ago, together with some experts’ comments. The reviewers concluded that He’s experiment could not be dubbed a success, and the twins might not have the lifelong immunity to HIV He had expected.
More from South China Morning Post:
- A year since China’s gene-edited baby scandal, here’s how the technology has advanced
- World is not ready to edit genes of human embryos
- Gene-edited babies: Chinese scientist He Jiankui ‘may have created unintended mutations’
This article China’s gene-editing ‘Frankenstein’ jailed for three years in modified baby case first appeared on South China Morning Post