Chinese Scientist Who Gene-Edited Babies Is Sent to Prison

This article pasted below (Wall Street Journal, Dec 30th) is a follow-up on a GEITP news article we shared last April — on the Chinese scientist who genetically-engineered twin embryos in utero (via CRISPR/Cas9 technology) so that the twin girls might be resistant to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and subsequent acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), if exposed later in life.

Besides the world medical community’s concerns about the bioethics of such an experiment (without going through a medical review board and proper legal channels), Dr. He (a PhD physicist with no clinical expertise) has been charged with “illegally practicing medicine” and, along with two accomplices, has been sentenced to 3 years in jail. For anyone who cares to ‘freshen up’ his knowledge on this news, the April 2019 article from GEITP [and attached pdf file] is pasted below this WSJ article. 😊


By Philip Wen

Dec. 30, 2019 8:18 am ET

BEIJING—The scientist who created the world’s first known genetically modified babies, stunning the global scientific community, has been sentenced by a Chinese court to three years in prison, state media reported.

He Jiankui said in November last year he had engineered twin girls—offspring of a healthy mother and an HIV-positive father—to be resistant to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, using a nascent gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9.

China was able to race ahead of the U.S. on testing gene-editing technology, because it had few regulatory hurdles to human trials, while the U.S. has stringent rules.

But Dr. He’s revelation drew immediate condemnation from bioethicists and fellow scientists in China and beyond, including the inventors of the gene-editing technology. Chinese authorities said in January they were investigating Dr. He, and he was fired from his post as an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology, based in the southern city of Shenzhen.

On Monday, a Shenzhen court convicted Dr. He and two accomplices on charges of illegally practicing medicine related to carrying out human-embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The court said Dr. He hoped to profit by commercializing the technology and that he forged documents and concealed the true nature of the procedures from both the patients he recruited and doctors who performed them, according to Xinhua. The report said all three defendants pleaded guilty.

“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, according to the report.

Dr. He also received a lifetime ban from working in the field of reproductive life sciences and from applying for related research grants, Xinhua said, citing local health and science authorities.

Dr. He couldn’t be reached for comment, and the identity of his lawyer isn’t known. A former spokesman for Dr. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Editing the genes of embryos is considered more contentious than editing those of terminally ill patients because any changes would pass on to future generations. Unintended consequences might not surface for several years, meaning a tiny blip could have far-reaching effects.

In what turned out to be one of his last public appearances in November last year, the Chinese scientist sprang another surprise at a scientific conference in Hong Kong, announcing a second woman was pregnant with a gene-edited baby.

Monday’s Xinhua report confirmed the birth of a third gene-edited baby from a second pregnancy but provided no other details. Previous state-media reports had said the newborn twins and people involved in the second pregnancy would be monitored by government health departments.

Dr. He, the son of rice farmers, graduated with a physics undergraduate degree in China and got a doctorate from Rice University, before switching to studying biology.

As earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal, people who know Dr. He have said he wanted to make history and address what he saw as an injustice in China against HIV-positive people, who are barred from getting fertility treatments. They said Dr. He had expected plaudits from Beijing for helping in its goal of making China a force in genetic science.

In much of the Western world, it is illegal to implant a genetically modified human embryo. The U.S. forbids the Food and Drug Administration, whose signoff is needed for such an experiment, from considering it. China doesn’t have a law, and although a 2003 guideline prohibited the genetic manipulation of human embryos, it didn’t outline penalties. In February, China’s National Health Commission drafted new rules governing “high-risk” biotechnology, including gene-editing, that would introduce criminal charges and lifetime research bans if breached, but they have yet to come into effect.

—Fanfan Wang and Preetika Rana contributed to this article.

From: Nebert, Daniel (nebertdw)
Sent: Monday, April 1, 2019 1:19 PM
Subject: The bioethical dilemmas surrounding “the Creation of CRISPR Babies”

These GEITP pages feel “obliged” to help make everyone aware of this recent bioethical dilemma, i.e. for everyone to ponder (if you so wish). The topic [see attached editorial] is “the Creation of CRISPR Babies” — meaning that it is now <> to remove or insert a human allele (one of the two copies of a gene in the developing very-early embryo), just as has already been done successfully in mice for the past 5+ years. A Chinese scientist (biophysicist He Jiankui) reported 3-4 months ago the birth of twin girls with edited genomes (at least, he says that the gene has been altered in these babies); this announcement has created a firestorm in the scientific and ethical communities. By engineering mutations into human embryos (which were then used to produce babies), Dr, He has leaped recklessly into an era of controversy.

Should scientists be able to “revise” the gene pool of future generations — by altering the human germ line? Dr. He has also ignored established norms for safety and human protections along the way. There is still no definitive evidence that this biophysicist actually has succeeded in modifying the girls’ genes — or those of a third child expected to be born later this year. However, the experiments have attracted so much attention that the incident could alter this type of obstetrical research for years to come. Chinese authorities are still investigating Dr. He, and US universities are asking questions of some of the scientists with whom Dr. He had consulted before proceeding recklessly ahead, on his own.

Meanwhile, there are calls for an international moratorium on related experiments — which could affect basic molecular biology research for a long time. This news has motivated some scientists to encourage further discussion “sooner, than later”, in favor of genome editing. Some are concerned about how public perception might now affect the future of the field. The attached article is worth reading, for those who might be interested.


Nature 28 Feb 2o19; 566: 440-442

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