China sends CRISPR gene-editing scientist to jail after secret trial
He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist responsible for creating the world’s first gene-edited babies, has been sentenced to three years in prison alongside shorter sentences for two of his colleagues. The report from Chinese state news agency Xinhua also confirms for the first time a third CRISPR gene-edited baby has been born.
In late 2018 the world was shocked by the unexpected revelation that two gene-edited human babies had been born in China. Days after the initial revelation the primary scientist behind the project, He Jiankui, took to the stage at an international conference on human genome editing in Hong Kong. He claimed he was proud of the work, which was designed to remove a specific gene with the goal of conferring a natural immunity to HIV infection.
The Chinese government quickly denounced He’s work, claiming it was entirely unauthorized and performed in secret without any official ethical approvals. Over the course of 2019, as the world debated the ethics of gene-editing, He was nowhere to be seen. His last public sighting was in January, and despite many journalists trying to track him down, He remained missing for the entire year.
Now the mystery seems to have been solved with Xinhua, China’s state news agency, revealing He and two other colleagues have been arrested, tried, and sentenced in a secret trial. He received the more stringent sentence of the trio: three years in prison and a fine of 3 million yuan (US$430,000). Zhang Renli, and Qin Jinzhou, the two other scientists charged, received jail terms of two years and 18 months, respectively.
The Xinhua article states He and his colleagues forged ethical documents and violated research regulations in the process of creating the gene-edited babies. In the reported verdict the court stated the scientists crossed an ethical line in the course of their work.
“None of the three defendants acquired doctor’s qualifications. [They] craved fame and fortune, and deliberately went against the country’s regulations on scientific research and medical management. [They] went beyond the bottom lines of scientific research and medical ethics,” according to a court in Shenzhen, as reported by the South China Morning Post.
The unexpected report also quietly confirmed the birth of a third gene-edited baby, which had been suspected for many months but never confirmed. No information as to the health of the three babies has been reported since early 2019.