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He Jiankui, the renegade doctor who shocked the global scientific community by announcing the birth of the world’s first gene-edited human babies, will spend three years in prison.
A Chinese court served up the surprise verdict on Monday, following a closed trial in which the 35-year-old doctor and two colleagues were convicted of “illegal medical practices,” according to a report in China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. They deployed a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-cas9, a game-changing technology that can tweak DNA to add a gene or knock one out.
All three researchers have now been barred from “engaging in human-assisted reproductive technology services” for the rest of their lives, Xinhua reported.
Such an unusual and risky trial involving human subjects would normally require official authorization, but Dr. He and his team forged ethical review papers, the court found. They proceeded to attempt to produce gene-edited, HIV-resistant babies from parents who had tested positive for the virus, the court found. Three babies were born from pregnancies in two women, including a pair of twins.
Dr. He and his colleagues caused a global outcry in late 2018 by announcing the DNA-altered twins, named Lulu and Nana, which he claimed were resistant to HIV. The move shocked scientists and bioethicists, who blasted Dr. He for opening a genetic Pandora’s Box of human experimentation with dangerous and unpredictable consequences.
Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal, called the experiment “unconscionable” after Dr. He unveiled his work at a conference in Hong Kong, the AP reported.
Dr. He, who was then a professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed he’d “removed the doorway through which HIV enters to infect people.” But his work was not independently verified or published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
China’s National Health Commission immediately called for an investigation.
Shortly after Dr. He’s shocking announcement, reports began to circulate suggesting he’d gone missing. A month later, he was spotted living in a small university guesthouse, under guard by a dozen unidentified men.
On Monday, the court found that Dr. He began chasing the potential fame and profits that could come from gene editing technology in 2016. In addition to a prison sentence, he was fined $430,000. Two other members of the team, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, received lighter sentences.
The gene-edited babies produced by the team are reportedly being kept under medical observation by local authorities in Guangdong province.
Cover image: He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, where he made his first public comments about his claim to have helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)