Disgraced Chinese scientist He Jiankui has been sentenced to three years in jail for creating the world’s first genetically modified human babies.
The Nanshan District People’s Court of Shenzhen has sentenced He Jiankui to three years in prison and fined him 3 million yuan ($430,000) for violating a government ban on using gene-editing technologies to create human beings, according to official state media Xinhua. Two other scientists who worked alongside He were also convicted and given lighter sentences.
The court said the scientists had acted “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain” resulting in “disrupted medical order,” reported Xinhua.
News of the gene-edited babies broke in November 2018, when He disclosed details of the experiment at a genetics conference in Hong Kong. The scientist claimed to have used the CRISPR-cas9 gene-editing tool to modify human embryos and then implant them into a mother’s womb. The resulting twin girls, dubbed Lulu and Nana, are—in theory—immune to the HIV virus, but it’s still not known if the experiment actually worked or how the modification might affect the girls later in life.
He’s achievement was widely condemned by scientists and bioethicists, who said the experiment was, in addition to being illegal under Chinese law, grossly premature and potentially dangerous. Indeed, the risks of using gene-editing technologies on humans is still poorly understood, and in this case, the deletion of the CCR5 gene (which was done to confer an immunity to the HIV virus) has been linked to higher mortality rates from influenza.
The experiment was conducted from March 2017 to November 2018, at which time He was an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. In total, eight volunteer couples were recruited for the experiment, of which two managed to produce offspring. A third gene-edited baby born to a second mother has also been confirmed by Xinhua. All men recruited for the experiment were infected with HIV/AIDS.
Evidence presented during the trial showed that He forged ethical review certificates to move the experiment forward. He and his colleagues “had knowingly violated the country’s regulations and ethical principles to conduct gene editing in assisted reproductive medicine,” reported Xinhua.
Two scientists who worked alongside He, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, were also convicted of illegally practicing medicine. The two were fined and given jail terms of two years and 18 months respectively, with a two year reprieve. All three scientists pled guilty during the trial, according to Xinhua.
By handing down these punishments, the Chinese courts have established an interesting—and welcome—precedent for these sorts of scientific and bioethical indiscretions. Critics previously complained that He’s experiment was a product of China’s lax regulatory structure. This case could be seen as an example of the country’s ongoing effort to clamp down on corruption and fraud.
Indeed, the three-year jail term, plus the hefty fine, will hopefully serve as a powerful deterrent for any opportunistic scientist looking to perform the same type of dangerous experiments. Gene-editing is most certainly in our future—we just have to be patient, methodical, and responsible about it.