A Chinese scientist who caused an international stir after claiming responsibility for the world’s first gene-edited babies in 2018 has been sentenced to three years behind bars on Monday.
He Jiankui, 35, along with two other collaborators, was found guilty of forging ethical review materials and misleading others into implanting genetically-engineered embryos in women, which resulted in three designer babies.
He and his collaborators, identified as Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, were all unqualified to work as doctors and convicted of illegal medical practice.
They deliberately violated national regulations in pursuit of “personal fame and gain,” seriously disrupting “medical order,” according to the Nanshan District People’s Court in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
He previously worked as an associate professor in the Department of Biology of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen.
He first made headlines in November 2018 when he announced the birth of two babies — twins named Lulu and Nana — with immunity against HIV.
In addition to his prison sentence, He must pay 3 million yuan (around $430,000) in fines, according to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.
Zhang received a two-year sentence and was fined 1 million yuan ($144,000), while Qin received an 18-month sentence with a two-year reprieve and was fined 500,000 yuan ($71,800).
The babies’ current conditions are unknown. Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley who co-invented CRISPR-Cas9 — the gene-editing technology He had utilized — reiterated that it is not ready for reproductive use.
“When I saw the announcement from Dr. He, initially, one of my very early thoughts was, ‘Gosh, I wonder if this is just the first of multiple such announcements that will start to be made by fertility clinics in various countries,” Doudna said on Monday, according to the Washington Post. “That hasn’t happened — and I think that is good.”
“As a result [of He’s experiments], the field of gene editing will now carry the #designerbabies hashtag that cannot be deleted from the popular consciousness by any legal action,” Fyodor Urnov, another scientist at the University of California, Berkeley told Newsweek.
“As CRISPR moves forward in the clinic for the essential medical goal of treating existing disease, and as we celebrate with cautious optimism the remarkable recent success in treating sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia, the hope is that He’s criminal act will not only make him the Herostratus of the field, but act as a permanent warning against anyone considering following in his footsteps.”
While China lacks specific laws on gene-editing, the practice is generally opposed by local researchers. For one, a group of 122 Chinese scientists slammed He’s actions as “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science,” according to the New York Times.
“I think a jail sentence is the proper punishment for him,” Wang Yuedan, a professor of immunology at Peking University, told the Times. “It makes clear our stance on the gene editing of humans — that we are opposed to it.”
Feature Image Screenshots via The He Lab