Science

China convicts researcher who claimed to create world's first gene-edited babies

A Chinese scientist who set off an ethical debate with claims he had made the world's first genetically edited babies has been sentenced to three years in prison because of his research, state media say.

Scientist's actions sparked global debate over ethics of gene editing

Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who claims he created the world's first genetically edited babies, was sentenced Monday to three years in prison because of his research, state media said. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

A Chinese scientist who set off an ethical debate with claims that he had made the world's first genetically edited babies was sentenced Monday to three years in prison because of his research, state media said.

He Jiankui, who was convicted of practising medicine without a licence, was also fined 3 million yuan ($561,000 Cdn) by a court in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, China's official Xinhua News Agency said.

Two other researchers involved in the project received lesser sentences and fines. Zhang Renli was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1 million yuan. Qin Jinzhou received an 18-month sentence, but with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan ($93,500 Cdn) fine.

He, the lead researcher, shocked the scientific world when he announced in November 2018 that he had altered the embryos of twin girls who had been born the same month. He described his work in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

The Xinhua report, citing the court's verdict, said the researchers were involved in the births of three gene-edited babies to two women, confirming reports of a third baby.

The court said the three researchers had not obtained qualification as doctors to practice medicine, pursued fame and profits, deliberately violated Chinese regulations on scientific research and crossed an ethical line in both scientific research and medicine. It also said they had fabricated ethical review documents.

The announcement sparked a global debate over the ethics of gene editing. He said he had used the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to try to disable a gene that allows the AIDS virus to enter a cell, in a bid to give the girls the ability to resist the infection. The identity of the girls has not been released, and it isn't clear if the experiment succeeded.

A lab technician demonstrates gene-editing software at a Chinese biotech company laboratory. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The CRISPR tool has been tested elsewhere in adults to treat diseases, but many in the scientific community denounced He's work as medically unnecessary and unethical, because any genetic changes could be passed down to future generations. The U.S. forbids editing embryos except for lab research.

He told the Associated Press in 2018 that he felt a strong responsibility to make an example, and that society would decide whether to allow the practice to go forward. He disappeared from public view shortly after he announced his research at a conference in Hong Kong 13 months ago, apparently detained by authorities initially in an apartment in Shenzhen.

A Chinese scientist said the sentence should have been harsher to deter others. Kehkooi Kee, a Tsinghua University researcher who conducts gene-editing research on stem cells, also said that He should be held responsible for any fallout from the experiment on the lives of the babies and their families.

Dr. William Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist whose advice He sought for more than a year before his 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 to the AP and to the director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, and gene-editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Sad story — everyone lost in this [He, 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," Hurlbut wrote.

Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, noted it's almost unheard of for a scientist to get imprisoned "but in this case the sheer recklessness and unethical behaviour warranted it." Topol praised China for standing up "for proper medical research conduct."

Doudna told the AP she was concerned about the "mysterious" legal process in China, but she said the sentences are "a step toward bringing this case to closure" and send a strong message to discourage other such work. (Doudna is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports AP's Health and Science Department.)

"As a scientist, one does not like to see scientists going to jail, but this was an unusual case," Doudna said. He's work was "clearly wrong in many ways."

He studied in the U.S. before setting up a lab at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, a city in Guangdong province that borders Hong Kong. The verdict accused him of colluding with Zhang and Qin, who worked at medical institutes in the same province.

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