Chinese scholars jailed for research on genetically modified babies

Three researchers involved in the births of genetically edited babies have been convicted and sentenced for practicing medicine illegally, Chinese state media said Monday.

The report by Xinhua news agency said lead researcher He Jiankui was sentenced to three years and fined 3 million yuan ($430,000).

He Jiankui.jpg

Undated image shows Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaking during an interview at his laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province. 

Two other people received lesser sentences and fines. Zhang Renli was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1 million yuan. Qin Jinzhou received an 18-month sentence, but with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan fine.

He, the lead researcher, shocked the scientific world when he announced in November 2018 that he had helped make the the world’s first genetically edited babies, twin girls born in the same month. He discussed the work in exclusive interviews with the AP.

The announcement sparked a global debate over the ethics of gene editing. He said he he had used a tool called CRISPR to alter a gene in embryos to try to help them resist infection with the AIDS virus.

He Jiankui.jpg

The Xinhua report, citing court documents, said the researchers were involved in the births of three gene-edited babies to two women, confirming reports of a third baby.

The court said the the three researchers had not obtained qualification as doctors to practice medicine, pursued fame and profits, deliberately violated Chinese regulations on scientific research and crossed an ethical line in both scientific research and medicine. It also said they had fabricated ethical review documents.

He studied in the U.S. before setting up a lab at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, a southern Chinese city that borders Hong Kong.

The sentencing document accused him of colluding with Zhang and Qin, who worked at unnamed medical institutes in Guangdong province, where Shenzhen is located.