A Chinese scientist who claimed he had made the world’s first genetically edited babies has been sentenced to three years in prison.
He Jiankui, who was convicted of practising medicine without a licence, was also fined 3 million yuan (£327,000) by a court in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported. Two other researchers involved in the project received lesser sentences and fines.
The verdict said the three defendants had not obtained qualification as doctors, pursued fame and profits, deliberately violated Chinese regulations on scientific research and crossed an ethical line in both scientific research and medicine, according to Xinhua.
The court said the researchers were involved in the births of three gene-edited babies to two women, confirming reports of a third baby. It also said they had fabricated ethical review documents.
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.
The announcement sparked a global debate over the ethics of gene editing. He said he had used a tool called 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 is not clear if the experiment succeeded.
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 US forbids editing embryos except for lab research.
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.
He studied in the US 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 Renli and Qin Jinzhou, who worked at medical institutes in the same province.
Zhang was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1 million yuan, Xinhua said. Qin received an 18-month prison sentence, but with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan fine.