Thirteen months after touching off an international firestorm with his research that led to the birth of three germline-edited babies, He Jiankui has been sentenced by Chinese authorities to three years in prison and a fine of 3 million yuan (about $430,000).
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported that the Nanshan District People’s Court of Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, has convicted He and two colleagues, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, of illegal medical practice. All three are reported to have pleaded guilty during their trial, which was not conducted publicly “due to the personal privacy of the persons involved,” Xinhua reported.
Zhang and Qin were sentenced to jail terms of two years and 18 months with a two-year reprieve, respectively. Zhang was fined 1 million yuan (about $143,000), and Qin, 500,000 yuan (nearly $72,000). He Jiankui is also barred from conducting any future research on assisted reproductive technology, which would seem to preclude any attempts to return to the field germline editing.
“This is a sobering reminder,” asserts Rodolphe Barrangou, PhD, associate professor of food science at North Carolina State University, “that scientists must account for the consequences of their research beyond peers and the scientific community.” When at the very frontier edge of science, Barrangou continues, it is ever-more critical to also account for the societal impacts of research, and implementing technology with caution when patients are involved, especially those with no voice.
J. Craig Venter, PhD, founder, chairman, and CEO of the research institute that bears his name, adds in a tweet: “I applaud the government of China for applying a prison term of three years for the scientist who did reckless human experimentation on genome editing of human embryos.”
Public prosecutors alleged that the defendants knowingly violated the country’s regulations and ethical principles by conducting gene editing in assisted reproductive medicine, when they were not qualified to work as medical doctors.
“The prosecutors presented substantial evidence to prove He’s team fabricated an ethical review certificate and recruited eight volunteer couples (with men who tested positive for HIV) intending to produce HIV-immune babies. They implanted genetically-engineered embryos into the women’s body and impregnated two of them, who gave birth to three babies,” Xinhua reported.
Two of the babies—Lulu and Nana—were twin girls born in October 2018; both carried mutations at the CCR5 gene which codes for a known HIV receptor. The existence of a third baby, who was due to be born in May 2019, appears to have been confirmed by the sentencing report.
A year of infamy
He’s actions shook the international scientific community when the news broke on the eve of the Human Genome Editing Summit held in November 2018 in Hong Kong. GEN reported live from the conference. From the first day of He Jiankui’s historic appearance, which drew a livestream audience of 1.8 million viewers—to the anti-climactic closing, which culminated in the organizing committee’s statement condemning He’s work and calling for a suspension of any further clinical trials of germline editing.
Despite He initially attempting to justify his decision to target the CCR5 gene to render the newborns resistant to HIV, his research has not gained any appreciable support of the scientific community. There were established methods to prevent the transmission of HIV from affected fathers to babies. Moreover, He’s team was unable to introduce the precise CCR5 deletion that occurs naturally in the human population, meaning the health of the babies remains highly questionable.
Layered on top of the science are the ethical aspects of human germline editing. In March 2019, Eric Lander, Feng Zhang, and colleagues called for a moratorium on human germline editing, writing a commentary published in Nature explaining their international framework. In October 2019, a special issue of The CRISPR Journal was devoted to the ethical aspects of genome editing.
In January 2019, He was fired by his university, the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen, China. Previously under house arrest in a guest house on the SUSTech campus, He then disappeared from view. His whereabouts and fate were unknown.
Finally, the District People’s Court has weighed in, declaring in its verdict that the acts of He and his colleagues were carried out “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain” and have seriously “disrupted medical order.”
“The health and health administrative department has included the persons involved in the case into the ‘blacklist’ of human reproductive technology violations and barred them from engaging in human-assisted reproductive technology services for life,” Xinhua reported.
“The competent science and technology department has imposed administrative treatment on the persons involved in the case for life-long bans from applying for administrative review and approval of human genetic resources in China, and for life-long bans from various types of scientific research projects for financial support.”