BEIJING, 31 Dec 2019:
Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who shot to global fame in late 2018 after claiming to have created the first gene-edited babies, was sentenced yesterday to three years in prison for his experiment.
He will also have to pay a 3-million yuan fine (US$430,000) after a court in Shenzhen (southeast China) found him guilty of illegally editing genes from embryos for reproductive purposes, official news agency Xinhua reported.
According to the report, three genetically modified babies were born as a result of the experiment.
Apart from He – a former professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen – two other scientists were also given prison sentences for participating in the experiment.
Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou – both of whom worked in medical institutions in Guangdong Province – received prison terms of two years and 18 months respectively.
Qin’s sentence came with a two-year reprieve, although both the scientists would have to pay fines.
According to the verdict, the three scientists – who pleaded guilty to charges against them – were not qualified to work as doctors and had knowingly violated the country’s law and ethical principles related to these types of practices.
The report added He’s team forged a certificate of ethical review and recruited eight couples to create babies genetically engineered to resist HIV.
According to the investigation, they implanted genetically modified embryos in the women. Two of the women became pregnant and gave birth to three babies.
In November 2018, the Chinese scientist had shocked the international community by claiming he had managed to create the first twins genetically manipulated to resist HIV, an experiment that drew criticism and triggered a debate on the ethics of his research and work.
An investigation by Guangdong province authorities, where He Jiankui worked, found the scientist had acted on his own and “had illegally conducted the research in pursuit of personal fame and gain.”
“He had avoided supervision, raised funds and organized researchers on his own to carry out the human embryo gene-editing research intended for reproduction, which is banned by Chinese law,” the report from earlier this year read.
At a conference in the University of Hong Kong – his last public appearance in November last year, the scientist said he felt proud of using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing technique on the twins and stressed the study did not aim to eliminate genetic diseases but to give babies the natural ability to resist a possible future HIV infection.
Later, more than 120 scholars from the Chinese scientific community said in a statement that any attempt to make changes in human embryos through genetic modifications was madness and posed a high risk for mothers giving birth to such babies.