Beijing — A Chinese court on Monday sentenced the doctor who claimed to be behind the world’s first gene-edited babies to three years in prison for illegal medical practice, state media reported. He Jiankui, who shocked the scientific community last year by announcing the birth of twins whose genes had allegedly been altered to confer immunity to HIV, was also fined three million yuan ($430,000), Xinhua news agency said.
He was sentenced by a court in Shenzhen for “illegally carrying out the human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction,” Xinhua said.
Two of his fellow researchers were also sentenced. Zhang Renli was handed a two-year jail term and fined one million yuan while Qin Jinzhou was given 18 months, suspended for two years, and fined 500,000 yuan.
The trio hadn’t obtained qualifications to work as doctors and had knowingly violated China’s regulations and ethical principles, according to the court verdict, Xinhua said.
They had acted “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain” and seriously “disrupted medical order,” it said.
Xinhua said a third gene-edited baby was born as a result of He’s experiments, which hadn’t previously been confirmed.
He announced in November 2018 that the world’s first gene-edited babies — twin girls — had been born that same month after he altered their DNA to prevent them from contracting HIV by deleting a certain gene under a technique known as CRISPR.
The claim shocked scientists worldwide, raising questions about bioethics and putting a spotlight on China’s lax oversight of scientific research.
Amid the outcry, He was placed under police investigation, the government ordered a halt to his research work and he was fired by his Chinese university.
Gene-editing for reproductive purposes is illegal in most countries. China’s health ministry issued regulations in 2003 prohibiting gene-editing of human embryos, though the procedure is allowed for “non-reproductive purposes”.
He’s gene editing meant to immunize the twins against HIV may have failed in its purpose and created unintended mutations, scientists said earlier this month after the original research was published for the first time.
He claimed a medical breakthrough that could “control the HIV epidemic,” but it wasn’t clear whether he’d even been successful in immunizing the babies against the virus because the team did not reproduce the gene mutation that confers that resistance, scientists told the MIT Technology Review.
While the team targeted the right gene, they did not replicate the “Delta 32” variation required, instead creating novel edits whose effects aren’t clear.
Moreover, CRISPR remains an imperfect tool because it can lead to unwanted or “off-target” edits, making its use in humans hugely controversial.