He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher and scientists stunned the world last year when his research of producing genetically altered babies proved successful. However, he has been found guilty of partaking in, “illegal medical practices” and has been sentenced to 3 years in prison by the Shenzhen court.
In November 2018, He Jiankui had successfully modified a key gene in a number of human embryos that allowed them to gain resistance to HIV/AIDS. This alteration enabled the immunodeficiency virus to be completely ineffective and its, otherwise, contagious nature to deem ineffective. This research allowed for the possibility of HIV to be easily reduced in the future.
He stated that in a conference at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, China, that the purpose of this was that he wanted to “spare the babies of the possibility of becoming infected with HIV later in life.” He further stated that with this modification, the burden and discrimination Africa faces would become less.
For this research, He recruited expecting couples where the father was infected with HIV and the mother was not. In the conference, he announced that he had created “genetically edited” twin sisters named Lulu and Nana by mutating a gene called “CCR5” into one that prevents the virus from invading cells. He presented his research in a quick 20 minutes time which was dubbed as a “blink and miss” where it was claimed that it was not enough to convince whether the twins’ went through a safe procedure or whether this gene modification was safely done in the IVF embryos of Lulu and Nana.
According to scientists, with such rigorous gene editing, it is possible that the twins’ bodies may have gone through accidental editing that was not meant to happen (“off-target edits”) and this could cause a possibility of problems such as cancer and heart diseases in the future.
This led to great controversy and He was forced to unpublish his research and papers on gene editing. His experiment was called “irresponsible, and unjustified” because it exposed the babies to risks associated with gene editing.
After a long decision, a court in Shenzhen has found that He and his other two researchers were deemed guilty. The court stated that He and his colleagues had “deliberately violated the relevant national regulations on scientific research and medical management” and “rashly applied gene editing technology to human assisted reproductive medicine.”
They were also found guilty of forging the ethical review documents which misled doctors causing them to plant the modified DNA into the two women He experimented on. One mother gave birth to twins while the other’s delivery was not made clear.
The court sentenced He Jiankui to 3 years in prison and in addition to serving the prison term, He also faced a $425,000 fine and will be banned for life from being involved in reproductive medicine in the future, according to a report from China’s Xinhua news agency.
The other two scientists involved in the research also faced charges and fine. Zhang Renli, was sentenced to serve two years in prison and two years in prison and fined $143,176 whereas his other colleague, Qin Jinzhou, also received an 18-month prison sentence and $71,588 fine.