CRISPR baby scientist He Jiankui sentenced to 3 years in prison

He Jiankui
Researcher He Jiankui said his CRISPR-Cas9 procedure could help babies resist future HIV infections, but the germline edits spurred a global backlash over whether today’s research is capable of accurately and ethically inserting genetic traits that could be passed down to future offspring. (Wikimedia Commons/The He Lab)

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who gained international notoriety one year ago by claiming to use CRISPR to create the world’s first gene-edited babies, has been sentenced to three years in prison, according to a report from China’s state news agency, Xinhua.

A court in Shenzhen found that He, an associate professor at the nearby Southern University of Science and Technology, and two embryologist colleagues were guilty of an “illegal medical practice” that resulted in the birth of twin girls with altered genomes.  

In November 2018, the researcher publicized his plans to edit live human embryos and delete genes linked to the surface receptor CCR5, which is used by HIV to enter and infect cells. 

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He said the in vitro procedure could help the babies resist future infections, but the germline edits spurred a global backlash over whether today’s CRISPR research is capable of ethically inserting traits that could be passed down to future offspring. The risk of causing unintended, off-target mutations remains high as well.

The three pleaded guilty to the charges and have been banned for life from participating in reproductive medicine and research. He’s colleagues Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou received sentences of 24 and 18 months in prison, respectively. He was also fined 3 million yuan, or about $430,000.

RELATED: Chinese researcher claims to have made the first CRISPR-edited babies

Details about the twins, Nana and Lulu, and their current health are unknown, while a third CRISPR-Cas9-edited baby from a separate pregnancy has also been born in the time since. The trial was closed to the public.

In early December, the MIT Technology Review printed an unpublished manuscript by He describing his work to develop a “novel therapy” that would immunize the twins to future HIV infections. However, the review’s analysis found certain claims were not supported by the paper’s data and that “the supposed medical benefits are dubious at best.”

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