Chinese researcher He Jiankui and two of his colleagues were sentenced to prison by a court in Shenzhen on Monday for creating the world’s first genetically altered babies, reported China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Jiankui, a former associate professor of the Southern University of Science and Technology, was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 3 million yuan ($430,000) for “illegally carrying out the human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction.”
His two accomplices – Zhang Renli, a researcher at the Guangdong Provincial People’s Hospital, received a prison term of two years and fined 1 million yuan, while Qin Jinzhou, a researcher at the Shenzhen Luohu Hospital Group, received a sentence of 18 months but with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan fine.
“The three accused did not have the proper certification to practice medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment,” the court said, according to Xinhua. “They’ve crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.”
In November 2018, Jiankui shook the entire world when he revealed that he had created genetically modified humans, twins referred to as Lulu and Nana.
The team used the CRISPR gene-editing technique to modify the twins’ genomes with the intention of protecting the girls against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. For the experiment, they recruited couples – husbands with HIV and wives without HIV. The modified embryos were then implanted into the mother for a full pregnancy term.
Jiankui’s research drew widespread criticism from many experts in the medical and scientific community around the world, including China. They considered the experiment to be extremely risky, immoral, and potentially even criminal in nature.
This led the provincial authorities to open up a criminal investigation against Jiankui’s work and halted the research. The trial proceedings were held behind closed doors and not made public as the case related to “personal privacy”.
While previously there were only reports of gene-edited twin girls, the Chinese authorities have acknowledged the birth of a third gene-edited child in the court statement.
According to the court documents, Jiankui and his team forged ethical review documents and used “impersonating and concealing tactics” on the patients and doctors to make them believe that they were part of an AIDS vaccine trial. Also, the gene-editing method employed by the team hasn’t been “verified for safety and effectiveness,” added the court documents.
Dr. William Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist, whom Jiankui consulted on the embryo-editing experiment, said he felt sorry for the scientist, his wife and two young daughters.
“I warned him things could end this way, but it was just too late,” Hurlbut wrote in an email. “Sad story – everyone lost in this (JK, his family, his colleagues, and his country), but the one gain is that the world is awakened to the seriousness of our advancing genetic technologies. I feel sorry for JK’s little family though—I warned him things could end this way, but it was just too late.”