According to state media, a Chinese researcher was sentenced to 3 years in prison after being found guilty for genetically editing babies.
Genetically edited baby, also known as a designer baby, results from an embryo whose genetic makeup has been altered or selected, often to include a particular gene or to remove genes associated with a disease. The process generally involves analyzing a wide range of human embryos and selecting the one with the strongest (desired) genetic makeup. Another method involves directly altering the genome of the fetus before birth.
He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, was convicted of practicing the latter method, without a license. He was also fined 3 million yuan ($430,000) by the court in Shenzhen. The team included two other researchers who were given a lesser sentence and fines.
The verdict stated that the three weren’t qualified as doctors, violated Chinese regulations on scientific research, fabricated ethical review documents, and crossed a line in both scientific research and medicine.
The team was involved in the births of three genetically modified babies, born to two women. According to Xinhua, a Chinese news agency, the defendants pleaded guilty during the trial, which was closed to public due to privacy concerns.
In November 2018, the lead researcher announced that he had altered the embryos of twin girls, in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press – leading to a global debate over the ethics of gene editing.
Jiankui used a tool called CRISPR to disable the gene that allows the entry of the AIDS virus to the cell in order to make the twins resistant to the virus. The identity of the children and the outcome of the experiment, however, is not known yet.
CRISPR has been previously tested in adults to treat diseases, however, many in the scientific community have denounced his work as unnecessary and unethical. The experiment permanently modified the genome of the twins which will be passed down to future generations.
Also known as ‘JK’, the lead scientist justified his experiment by saying that he felt the need to make an example, leaving the decision to continue or stop it to society. Shortly after the announcement, JK disappeared from the public view. According to rumors, he was detained by the authorities in an apartment in Shenzhen.
Kehkooi Kee, a Tsinghua University researcher who conducts gene-editing research on stem cells, said that the sentence should’ve been harsher and that Jiankui should be held accountable for any damages that might come to the family of the genetically modified babies.
Jk’s mentor, Dr. William Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist, said that 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 addressed to the AP; 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.
The convict was also accused of working with Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou for the venture. Zhang was sentenced to two years in prison with a fine of 1 million yuan, and Qin received an 18-month sentence with a two-year reprieve and a 500,000 yuan fine.