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Chinese researcher who made CRISPR babies is sentenced to three years in prison

BMJ 2020; 368 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m11 (Published 03 January 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m11
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. Montreal, Canada

He Jiankui, the researcher and entrepreneur who in 2018 announced the birth of the world’s first gene edited babies, has been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and fined 3m yuan (£329 000; €386 000; $430 000) by a Chinese court.

Two researchers who worked with him received lesser sentences and fines. The three were convicted of practising medicine without a licence. He Jiankui also fabricated an ethics review certificate, the District People’s Court in Shenzhen found. All three men pleaded guilty.

“The three accused did not have the proper certification to practise medicine, and, in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment,” the court said, according to China’s official news agency Xinhua.

The court also confirmed reports of the birth of a third baby with genes edited by He Jiankui’s team, to different parents than the twin girls Lula and Nana, whose birth he announced in November 2018.

That revelation made headlines around the world, but drew a swift backlash from other scientists. Within days of the announcement He Jiankui was reportedly placed under house arrest in China.1

Several of He’s peers criticised the Chinese legal process which effectively saw him disappear without explanation for nearly a year, but few argued with the final sentence.

Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told the Associated Press that imprisoning scientists for research is almost unheard of “but in this case the sheer recklessness and unethical behaviour warranted it.”

He Jiankui’s work was “clearly wrong in many ways,” gene editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, told the Associated Press. “One does not like to see other scientists going to jail, but this was an unusual case,” she said.

William Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist from whom He Jiankui sought advice before publicising his research, told fellow scientists in a public email: “I warned him that things could end this way, but it was just too late.”

“Everyone lost in this,” wrote Hurlbut, “but the one gain is that the world is awakened to the seriousness of our advancing genetic technologies.”

James Lawford Davies and Julian Hitchcock, two UK lawyers specialising in regulation of human genome editing, noted that He’s actions, if carried out in the UK, would warrant a penalty similar to the Chinese court’s sentence, but after a more transparent process.

The same point was made by Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute, who in 2018 introduced He Jiankui to angry delegates at a Hong Kong genomics conference, days after the Chinese scientist had announced the twins’ birth in a YouTube video.

The case showed the need for better regulation of the field, said Lovell-Badge, adding that the full results of He’s editing are still not known. They could include mosaicism—editing some cells but not others—and unintended “off-target” edits elsewhere on the genome.

“It is far too premature for anyone to attempt clinical application of germline genome editing; indeed, at this stage we do not know if the methods will ever be sufficiently safe,” he said.

R Alta Charo of Stanford University, who met He Jiankui at the 2018 genomics conference, told the Washington Post that he was “an example of somebody who fundamentally didn’t understand, or didn’t want to recognise, what have become international norms around responsible research.”

She added, “My impression is that he allowed his personal ambition to cloud rational thinking and judgment.”

Last month, experts who studied He Jiankui’s unpublished research manuscript for the MIT Technology Review concluded that his central claim to have created babies immune to HIV infection was not justified by his own data.2

He did edit the relevant CCR5 gene, the experts wrote, but did not create the mutation known to confer HIV resistance. Instead he created new mutations of unknown effect.

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