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China jails scientists for gene-edited babies

December 30, 2019

A court has found Chinese scientist He Jiankui guilty of illegal medical practice. He had claimed credit for genetically engineering twins resistant to HIV in a controversial procedure.

He Jiankui speaks about the procedure in his lab
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/M. Schiefelbein

A Chinese court on Monday sentenced biophysics researcher He Jiankui to three years in prison for creating the world's first "gene-edited" babies.

Two other scientists who assisted He were also handed lesser sentences.

"The three accused did not have the proper certification to practice medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment," said the court, according to China's Xinhua news agency.

"They've crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics."

Read more: Opinion: Why we should stop human gene editing

A molecule is being edited using CRISPR
He used a procedure known as CRISPR which allows one to edit, snip and replace genesImage: picture alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

'My work will be controversial'

In 2018, He released a YouTube video announcing the results of his medical intervention and the birth of gene-edited twins. He said the genes were edited using CRISPR to prevent embryos from contracting HIV, noting that the twins' father had the virus.

"Their parents don't want a designer baby," He said. "Just a child who won't suffer from a disease which medicine can prevent. I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I'm willing to take the criticism for them."

Read more: HIV completely removed from mice in groundbreaking study

Ethical issues

His actions were widely condemned by the scientific community for failing to adhere to research guidelines that forbid such practices, especially without oversight.

In the US, the medical procedure is strictly limited to laboratory research. In China, while human cloning is outlawed, gene editing is not.

The MIT Technology Review warned that "the technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations and could eventually affect the entire gene pool."

A study published afterward found that the people who have comparable natural genetic modification are likely to die earlier. 

Read more: Who's the daddy: Does it really matter where your DNA comes from?

ls/aw (Reuters, AP)