Scientist Behind First CRISPR-Modified Babies Sentenced to Three Years in Prison

He Jiankui faced backlash immediately after announcing the twins’ birth late last year

He Jiankui
Chinese authorities found that He's team falsified regulatory paperwork. Photo by Anthony Wallace / AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, a court in Shenzhen sentenced He Jiankui—the scientist who performed CRISPR gene-editing on twin human embryos—to three years in prison and a fine of about $430,000 for conducting an “illegal medical practice,” reports Andrew Joseph reports for Stat. During the trial, the court also quietly confirmed the birth of a third CRISPR-modified baby from a second pregnancy.

He and two colleagues, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, pleaded guilty to charges that they had “violated Chinese regulations and ethical principles” as well as “falsified regulatory paperwork,” Joseph reports. Zhang and Qin received suspended jail sentences and lower fines.

Last year, He announced the birth of twin girls who he had performed CRISPR gene-editing on as embryos. His claim, which had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, caused a whirlwind of ethical controversy and his work was almost universally condemned as dangerous and premature by the scientific community.

"I understand my work will be controversial," He told NPR’s Rob Stein in 2018. "But I believe families need this technology. And I am willing to take the criticism for them."

He and his research team were attempting to give embryos resistance to HIV by working with couples in which the man was HIV positive, but the woman was not who were pursuing in vitro fertilization. By altering the gene CCR5, known to provide a pathway for HIV to infect cells, He’s team hoped to give the children resistance to their father’s HIV. However, germ-line gene editing has the potential to cause cascading changes for multiple generations, reported The Atlantic’s Ed Yong in 2018.

At the trial, Chinese authorities criticized the research team for doing their work “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain,” Stat’s Joseph reports.

"None of the three defendants acquired doctor's qualifications. [They] craved fame and fortune and deliberately went against the country's regulations on scientific research and medical management. [They] went beyond the bottom lines of scientific research and medical ethics," the court stated, as Kinling Lo reports for South China Morning Post.

In fact, targeting CCR5 didn’t actually “address an unmet medical need,” Yong writes, because other ways to block CCR5 from causing HIV exist. Altering CCR5 could possibly make the girls more susceptible to certain diseases, like West Nile virus, or more likely to die from influenza, as previous studies in mice have demonstrated.

When other scientists were able to analyze He’s data, they found that his work was sloppy and likely introduced accidental edits elsewhere in the twin’s DNA to could introduce health issues for the twins, including increasing their risk of developing cancer, reports Science’s Cohen. For many, the amateurish nature of his work proved that he had in fact completed the work because falsifying data so dramatically would be hard to do. “I can believe that he did it because it’s so bad,” as Australian National University geneticist Gaetan Burgio told Angela Chen at The Verge in 2018.

He claimed that he was following guidelines laid out by a committee of scientists and ethicists in a report for the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). Though the document did not call for an all-out international ban, it did call for government regulation by country and "voluntary self-regulation pursuant to professional guidelines," reports Science’s Cohen. This summer, an investigation by Cohen revealed that He was meeting with investors to discuss a potential commercial genetic modification clinic in Hainan, which aims to become a “a world-class medical tourism hub.”

Yong reported in 2018 that prominent scientists, geneticists and bioethicists described He’s work as “profoundly disturbing” and “monstrous” while others said they were “horrified.”

Marcy Darnovsky, the executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, describes He's experiments in an email to NPR’s Merrit Kennedy as "reckless and self-serving” that “should highlight the broader and deeper risks — and the pointlessness — of any proposal to use gene editing in human reproduction.”

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