A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a scientist responsible for creating the world’s first genetically modified children to a three-year stretch in prison after his experiments elicited a massive backlash over what some described as a blatant abuse of bioethics, according to reports in the Chinese press that were picked up by WSJ.
The court accused Dr. He Jiankui of forging documents to conceal what he was doing from both the patients he recruited for the trial and the doctors who performed the work alongside him. Both Dr. He and two alleged “accomplices” pleaded guilty, according to the court.
“In order to pursue fame and profit, they deliberately violated the relevant national regulations, and crossed the bottom lines of scientific and medical ethics,” the court said.
Dr. He (the son of rice farmers) graduated with a degree in physics in China before getting a doctorate from Rice University in the US. Eventually, he switched to studying biology, which led to his interest in gene-editing technology.
People who knew the doctor said he wanted to make history, and also ameliorate what he saw as an injustice against HIV-positive people in China, who are barred from receiving fertility treatments. It’s believed that the doctor expected a reward from Beijing for helping China reach its goal of becoming a leader in genetic science.
Instead, Dr. He stunned the global scientific community last year when he revealed that he had successfully edited the genes of two twin babies from HIV+ parents. Dr. He said he had engineered the twin girls using a gene-editing technology called Crispr-Cas9 to be resistant to HIV. The girls were born of a healthy mother and an HIV+ father, which can sometimes lead to the virus being passed down to the children.
He also admitted to creating a third genetically modified baby. Chinese authorities said they will monitor all three children into adulthood.
Unfortunately for Dr. He, the accolades he had anticipated never materialized.
Instead, his revelation elicited condemnation from bioethicists and other doctors in China, including the inventors of the gene-editing technology he used. Dr. He was soon fired from his post at Southern University of Science and Technology (based in the southern city of Shenzhen).
And on Monday, he was convicted by a court in Shenzhen of illegally practicing medicine.
Bioethics contend that editing the genes of embryos is a much more sensitive area because those children will eventually grow up and risk passing on the edited genes to the next generation, creating room for unintended consequences to surface decades down the road.
In the US, gene-editing technology has mostly been applied to terminally ill patients who likely won’t pass on the changes to the next generation.