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China jails scientist, two medical researchers who gene-edited babies

Chinese biomedical researcher Dr. Jiankui He. (Begoon/Wikimedia Commons)
December 31, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A court in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong on Monday jailed a scientist for three years after he edited the genes of human embryos to confer immunity to HIV, in a case that sparked a global debate about the ethics of the procedure.

“The judgment in the gene-edited babies case was announced publicly by the Shenzhen Nanshan District People’s Court on [Dec.] 30,” an official news story posted to the website of the Supreme People’s Court said.

“The three defendants, He Jiankui, Zhang Renli, and Qin Jinzhou, were the subject of a criminal investigation … for jointly carrying out human embryo gene editing and reproductive medical activities for reproductive purposes, constituting the crime of illegal medical practice,” it said.

“During the trial, the public prosecution agency produced physical and documentary evidence, witness testimony, expert opinions, investigation, audiovisual materials and electronic data,” it said.

“Defense lawyers appeared in court for the three defendants, who pleaded guilty at the time of trial,” it said.

Shenzhen city found He, a former associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology, guilty of practicing medicine without a license, and also fined him three million yuan (U.S.$430,000).

The court handed shorter sentences to fellow researchers Zhang and Qin, who had worked at two unnamed medical institutions, for having “conspired” with He in his work, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Zhang, a member of a medical research institute in Guangdong province, was handed a two-year jail term and fined one million yuan, while Qin, a member of a similar institution in Shenzhen, received an 18-month sentence suspended for two years, the Supreme People’s Court article said.

“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,” Xinhua quoted the court judgment as saying.

“They have crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.”

He and his collaborators forged ethical review materials and recruited men with AIDS who were part of a couple to carry out the gene-editing, the report said.

‘He should have gotten 13 years’

According to the judgment, the researchers were involved in the births of three gene-edited babies to two women, and that all three had pleaded guilty during the trial, which was held in secret for reasons of “privacy,” the agency said.

Authorities in Guangdong began an investigation into the activities of the geneticist and Stanford University graduate after he claimed at a biomedical conference in Hong Kong in November to have edited the genes of twin babies to confer immunity to HIV.

He Jiankui told the conference that the twins’ DNA was modified using CRISPR, a technique which allows scientists to remove and replace a strand of genetic material with pinpoint precision.

After the conference ended, He was placed under criminal investigation and accused of academic fraud and bioethics violations by state news agency Xinhua.

Chen Bingzhong, a former director of the China Institute of Health Education, said there are concerns that the three babies born with edited genes could face “unexpected physical changes” later in life.

“There are still many unknowable factors. It is very tragic,” Chen said. “He definitely deserved a sentence of three years. I think it was a bit too lenient. He should have gotten 13 years.”

Chen said He was highly unlikely to have been acting entirely without high-ranking official knowledge or support, however.

“Maybe the veil hasn’t been completely torn aside here; there are [likely] other forces at work behind the scenes,” he said. “He wouldn’t have been able to get this far without backing, and they should also go after those who were supporting him.”

“His work unit knew what he was about for a long time, and someone should be held accountable for those lapses in supervision — they should be sanctioned if not criminally investigated,” Chen said.

A Dec. 3 analysis of He’s work in the MIT Technology Review said a draft paper sent out by him for publication made “expansive claims” of a medical breakthrough that could control China’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“Yet surprisingly, it makes little attempt to prove that the [gene-edited] twins really are resistant to the virus,” the article said.