Chinese Scientist Faces Three Years In Prison For Genetically Editing Babies

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.”

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