Gene-editing Scientist He Jiankui Sentenced to Three Years

Last November, He Jiankui, a researcher at Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology, announced that he had successfully used the CRISPR-CaS9 genome-editing tool to alter the embryos of twin girls to make them immune to HIV. His announcement sparked a global outcry from scientists and ethicists. Gene-editing is banned in most countries, and while no law outlaws it in China, the government and his host institution were quick to disavow his work. Soon after the announcement, He disappeared from public view and his whereabouts and status have been unknown. This week, the government announced that He had been secretly tried and sentenced to three years in prison for carrying out “illegal medical practices.” It was also revealed that He altered the genes of a third baby. Sui-Lee Wee reports for The New York Times:

In a surprise announcement from a trial that was closed to the public, the court in the southern city of Shenzhen found Dr. He guilty of forging approval documents from ethics review boards to recruit couples in which the man had H.I.V. and the woman did not, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported. Dr. He had said he was trying to prevent H.I.V. infections in newborns, but the state media on Monday said he deceived the subjects and the medical authorities alike.

Dr. He, 35, sent the scientific world into an uproar last year when he announced at a conference in Hong Kong that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls. On Monday, China’s state media said his work had resulted in a third genetically edited baby, who had been previously undisclosed.

Dr. He pleaded guilty and was also fined $430,000, according to Xinhua. In a brief trial, the court also handed down prison sentences to two other scientists who it said had “conspired” with him: Zhang Renli, who was sentenced to two years in prison, and Qin Jinzhou, who got a suspended sentence of one and a half years. [Source]

Julia Hollingsworth and Isaac Yee of CNN further report on the trial:

According to the court’s findings, He became aware of potential economic gains from human embryo gene-editing technology in 2016, Xinhua reported. He worked with two medical researchers, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, to use gene-editing technology to produce babies that were resistant to HIV.

“The court held that the three defendants failed to obtain a doctor’s qualification and pursued profit, deliberately violated the relevant national regulations on scientific research and medical management, crossed the bottom line of scientific and medical ethics, and rashly applied gene-editing technology to human-assisted reproductive medicine, and disrupted the medical treatment,” Xinhua reported. “The nature of their behavior is serious and has constituted the crime of illegal medical practice.”

[…] Editing the genes of embryos intended for pregnancy is banned in many countries, including the United States. In the United Kingdom, embryos can only be edited for research purposes with strict regulatory approval. It is unknown whether the procedure is safe or, if used in pregnancy, whether it can have unintended consequences for the babies later in life or for future generations. [Source]

Earlier this month, MIT Technology Review published excerpts of He’s paper explaining his research, saying that “he ignored ethical and scientific norms” in his work. While his work has been widely condemned in the global scientific community, Rice University is investigating bioengineering professor Michael Deem for contributing to He’s research. At Science Magazine, Dennis Normile reports on the initial reaction to He’s announcement last year:

The announcement touched off a firestorm of criticism from scientists and ethicists in attendance at the summit and around the world. Experts agree there are safer and more effective ways to prevent HIV infections, and the experiment was deemed premature, irresponsible, and unjustified because it exposed the babies to risks associated with gene editing for little, if any, benefit.

Guandong province, which Shenzhen is part of, conducted an investigation that concluded: “He had defied government bans and conducted the research in the pursuit of personal fame and gain.” But details of the investigation, including who conducted it, were never publicly released. Instead, the results were publicized in January 2019 by Xinhua. SUSTech dismissed He at that time. The Chinese government later tightened regulations covering human genome editing. He has not been seen in public since his presentation at the Hong Kong conference.

But many key questions surrounding his activities remain and scientists are hoping more information will be forthcoming. “We had been wondering what had happened to He Jiankui; there has been little if any news on his whereabouts or the progress of any investigation being conducted by the Chinese authorities, or of other details surrounding what he had done, for many months,” Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell biologist at the Francis Crick Institute, said in a statement distributed by the United Kingdom’s Science Media Centre. “In that sense alone, the information now released is reassuring,” he added. Lovell-Badge said he cannot comment on the severity of the sentence, “but both prison and a fine would have been the likely penalties if someone had done what [He] did in the U.K.” [Source]

Philip Wen and Amy Dockser Marcus report for the Wall Street Journal on the response to He’s sentencing among scientists and its potential impact on the global scientific community:

Victor Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, one of the conveners earlier this year of the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing, said the jail sentence for Dr. He and his colleagues will “have a big effect globally on all scientists.” Not all governments have policies regarding the editing and implantation of human embryos, he said. “The scientists don’t know how their government will respond,” said Dr. Dzau.

The commission is attempting to create suggested guidelines and advice for scientists, clinicians and governments regarding human embryo gene editing.

“In the United States, everybody realizes this is something we should not do at this time. It is irresponsible until we have good guidance,” he said.

[…] Kiran Musunuru, an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine and genetics at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a recent book about Crispr and the gene-edited babies, said the jail sentence is likely to have a deterrent effect on scientists in China. “This is a signal that China is serious about restricting this sort of research and clamping down on rogue actors like He,” he said. “What happens behind closed doors is hard to know, but outwardly at least, they have taken a serious stance.” [Source]


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