He shocked the world with his claim that he had gene edited babies to resist the AIDS virus. Now He Jiankui is going to prison for it.
He shocked the world with his claim that he had gene edited babies to resist the AIDS virus. Now He Jiankui is going to prison for it.

Man 'playing God' is locked up for altering babies' DNA

A Chinese scientist has been sent to prison after gene editing babies.

He Jiankui has been sentenced to three years in prison and fined three million yuan ($A613,000) after a closed trial reportedly heard he and his team crossed both ethical and regulatory lines, faked ethical review documents, were only interested in fame and fortune and weren't real doctors.

According to the Associated Press, citing Chinese state media, Jiankui and his co-researchers Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) to modify the genetic codes of three babies, with the goal of making them resistant to the AIDS virus by disabling a gene that lets it enter cells.

Jiankui shocked the world in November last year when he claimed to have gene edited the babies, sparking debate over the ethics of doing so.

He Jiankui has been sentenced to three years prison for gene editing babies. Picture: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
He Jiankui has been sentenced to three years prison for gene editing babies. Picture: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Critics labelled his work medically unnecessary and unethical and were concerned the edited genetic sequences could be passed down to future generations. Unlike gene editing in adults, which has been recently attempted to treat deadly diseases, the gene-edited babies could potentially pass on the altered genetics because they were edited at the embryonic stage.

Jiankui told AP last year the process for the gene editing involved inserting a single sperm into a single embryo and then editing it before an in vitro fertilisation.

An embryologist in Jiankui’s lab adjusts a microplate. Picture: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File
An embryologist in Jiankui’s lab adjusts a microplate. Picture: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

Jiankui said he had been trying to make an example and wanted to let society decide if the practice of gene editing should be allowed to go forward.

Shortly after making the announcement at a conference in Hong Kong, Jiankui went quiet, and it's understood he had been detained by Chinese authorities.

On Monday he received his sentence, alongside his fellow researchers, in a trial that was closed to the public reportedly for privacy reasons.

Zhang Renli was sentenced to two years prison and fined one million yuan ($A204,000). Qin Jinzhou was sentenced to 18 months prison, suspended for two years, and fined 500,000 yuan ($A102,000).

Jiankui studied at Stanford University and Rice University in the United States before moving back home and starting the Southern University of Science and Technology of China as well as two genetics companies.

Jiankui shocked many when presenting his claim at the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong. Picture: AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File
Jiankui shocked many when presenting his claim at the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong. Picture: AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File

A bioethicist at Stanford University told AP he had given Jiankui advice for more than a year in the lead-up to the experiment and warned him his work could land him in prison.

"I warned him things could end this way, but it was just too late," Dr William Hurlbut said in an email, adding he felt sorry for Jiankui and his family.

"Sad story - everyone lost in this, but the one gain is that the world is awakened to the seriousness of our advancing genetic technologies."

Tsingshua University stem cell researcher Kehkooi Kee told AP that Jiankui should have received a harsher sentence to deter others following in his footsteps, and that if anything bad happens to the babies or their families as a result of the gene edits, Jiankui should be held responsible for that too.

Should the researchers have been sent to prison? Let us know what you think in the comments below.