- A Chinese court on Monday sentenced He Jiankui, the scientist who claimed in 2018 that the first two gene-edited babies had been born, to three years in prison, according to Chinese state media reports.
- The court sentenced two of He's colleagues to time in prison as well, concluding that the three violated Chinese regulations, practiced medicine without a license, and crossed an ethical line by using the Crispr gene-editing technology on embryos to make them resistant to HIV. He was also fined $430,000, according to Xinhua.
- The news of He's work in 2018 drew outrage from the scientific community, which called the work unethical and dangerous.
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He Jiankui, the scientist in China who shocked the world in 2018 when he claimed responsibility for the births of the first two genetically edited babies, has been sentenced to three years in prison, according to Chinese state media reports on Monday.
The court sentenced two of He's colleagues to time in prison as well, concluding that the three violated Chinese regulations, practiced medicine without a license, and crossed an ethical line by using the Crispr gene-editing technology on embryos to make them resistant to HIV.
He was also fined $430,000, according to Xinhua.
Xinhua said the court filing indicated that a third genetically edited baby had been born, in addition to the first two, twins nicknamed Lulu and Nana.
He's work was the first to apply Crispr technology to manipulate a gene associated with HIV in embryos. It drew immense outrage from the scientific community both in China and around the world, with scientists calling his work unethical and dangerous.
The introduction of Crispr
Crispr is an easy method of tweaking DNA that came to light around 2012. In 2015, the gene-editing technology Crispr-Cas9 earned Science magazine's Breakthrough of the Year Award, beating out developments like the Pluto flyby.
Since its introduction, the technology has been used in experimental treatments that have now entered human trials, as well as everyday lab science.
In 2019, human trials got underway in the US, Canada, and Europe to see how the gene-editing technology works in blood disorders like sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia. Early-stage trials have found positive results in the two patients treated so far, the biotech companies Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Crispr Therapeutics said in a November release.
Why scientists weren't too happy about He's work
The conversation about the potential of Crispr took an abrupt turn in 2018 when He claimed that the first two genetically edited babies had been born.
He told The Associated Press that by using the gene-editing tool he'd disabled CCR5, a gene that forms a way for HIV to enter a cell. He said he had altered embryos for seven couples, with one pregnancy resulting. The Xinhua report on Monday alluded to the birth of a third genetically edited baby.
Shortly after He announced the birth of the first two babies, China shut down his work and put him under investigation.
The editing of human embryos raises a whole host of ethical questions that led to outrage from the scientific community. Changes to an embryo have widespread effects during the body's development, and they can even be inherited. The human trials using Crispr are looking at making tweaks to certain genes in adults, which don't have the potential to be passed down to other generations.
Shortly after He announced the births, 120 Chinese scientists called for gene-editing regulations.
"Pandora's Box has been opened. We need to close it before we lose our last chance," the scientists wrote at the time, as translated by Quartz. "We as biomedical researchers strongly oppose and condemn any attempts on editing human embryo genes without scrutiny on ethics and safety!"
The scientists credited with the discovery of Crispr also spoke out against He's use of it.
"This work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community's application of Crispr-Cas9 for human germline editing," Jennifer Doudna, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who helped discover Crispr, told NPR.
Beyond gene edits for protection against HIV — which can itself create issues for babies later on — the scientific community has long been concerned with whether genetic modification could lead to "designer babies" manipulated to have certain traits like a preferred hair color or superior intelligence.