The Chinese scientist who created the world’s first genetically altered babies has been sentenced to three years in prison and a lifelong ban from working in reproductive technology, state media reported on 30 December 2019. He Jiankui, a Shenzhen researcher who drew widespread condemnation when he revealed his experiment last year, will also have to pay a 3 million yuan ($430,000) fine, said a report, citing the verdict of a court in the southern Chinese city.

 

What

  1. Two others who assisted him were also sentenced. Zhang Renli, a researcher at the Guangdong Provincial People’s Hospital, received a prison term of two years and Qin Jinzhou, a researcher at the Shenzhen Luohu Hospital Group, received a term of 18 months, suspended for two years.
  2. The verdict is China’s first public statement on the fate of He, who disappeared from public view after his 2018 experiment sparked a global backlash. 
  3. His work to edit the genes of embryos to make babies who are resistant to the virus that causes AIDS was sharply critiqued by the international scientific community as an abuse of new gene-engineering methods that are still not fully understood.
  4. He’s experiment -- which took place in near secrecy and was revealed only after twin baby girls were born -- also ignited concern that China is not properly regulating its ambitious researchers in its push to become a global leader in science and medicine.
  5. He’s experiment, for which he recruited couples with HIV who did not want to pass the disease to their offspring, two women became pregnant and three gene-edited babies were born. The trial proceedings were not made public to protect the identities of the children and their parents, said Xinhua.
  6. The court found that He and the two others had forged ethical review documents and used “impersonating and concealing tactics" on unsuspecting doctors to complete their experiment.
  7. In the wake of the controversy, China said earlier this year that it would more strictly control clinical trials involving gene-editing and other experimental life science technologies. Researchers will now require approval from the highest level of government before they can do such work.

Flashback

  1. He Jiankui, an independent Chinese researcher, triggered global controversy and confusion over claims that his experiments produced the first genetically altered babies using gene editing technology. 
  2. The scientist claims to have used CRISPR/Cas9 technology to alter the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of embryos before implanting them into the mother’s womb to make the twin babies resistant to HIV
  3. The unverified claim by He—propagated through media and online videos—has stoked public fears and renewed apprehensions that babies might one day be “designed”. 
  4. It raises an urgent need for sound governance and greater public dialogue on gene editing.
  5. While it is illegal to deliberately alter the genes of human embryos in India, in the US, and many other countries, the legal position on gene editing in China is less clear. 
  6. However, within the scientific community in China, He’s claims were openly chided. Some Chinese scientists made clear that He’s claims were “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science”.