A Chinese scientist who set off an ethical debate with claims that he had made the world’s first genetically edited babies was sentenced Monday to three years in prison because of his research, state media said.
He Jiankui, who was convicted of practicing medicine without a license, was also fined 3 million yuan ($560,000 Cdn) by a court in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said.
Two other researchers involved in the project 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 ($93,000 Cdn) fine.
He, the lead researcher, shocked the scientific world when he announced in November 2018 that he had altered the embryos of twin girls who had been born the same month. He described his work in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.
The announcement sparked a global debate over the ethics of gene editing. He said he had used the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to try to disable a gene that allows the AIDS virus to enter a cell, in a bid to give the girls the ability to resist the infection. The identity of the girls has not been released, and it isn’t clear if the experiment succeeded.
The CRISPR tool has been tested elsewhere in adults to treat diseases, but many in the scientific community denounced He’s work as medically unnecessary and unethical, because any genetic changes could be passed down to future generations. The U.S. forbids editing embryos except for lab research.
He told the Associated Press in 2018 that he felt a strong responsibility to make an example, and that society would decide whether to allow the practice to go forward. He disappeared from public view shortly after he announced his research at a conference in Hong Kong 13 months ago, apparently detained by authorities initially in an apartment in Shenzhen.
The Xinhua report, citing the court’s verdict, 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 city in Guangdong province that borders Hong Kong. The verdict accused him of colluding with Zhang and Qin, who worked at medical institutes in the same province.