BEIJING — A court in China on Monday sentenced He Jiankui, the researcher who shocked the global scientific community when he claimed that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies, to three years in prison for carrying out “illegal medical practices.”
In a surprise announcement from a trial that was closed to the public, the court in the southern city of Shenzhen found He guilty of forging approval documents from ethics review boards to recruit couples in which the man had HIV and the woman did not, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported. He had said he was trying to prevent HIV infections in newborns, but the state media Monday said he deceived the subjects and the medical authorities alike.
He, 35, sent the scientific world into an uproar last year when he announced at a conference in Hong Kong that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls. On Monday, China’s state media said his work had resulted in a third genetically edited baby, who had been previously undisclosed.
He pleaded guilty and was also fined $430,000. In a brief trial, the court also handed down prison sentences to two other scientists who it said had “conspired” with him: Zhang Renli, who was sentenced to two years in prison, and Qin Jinzhou, who got a suspended sentence of 1 1/2 years.
The court held that the defendants, “in the pursuit of fame and profit, deliberately violated the relevant national regulations on scientific and medical research and crossed the bottom line on scientific and medical ethics,” Xinhua said.
He’s declaration made him a pariah among scientists, cast a harsh light on China’s scientific ambitions and embroiled other U.S. scientists who were connected to He. Although He offered no proof and did not share any evidence or data that definitively proved he had done it, his colleagues had said it was possible that he had succeeded.
U.S. scientists who knew of He’s plans are now under scrutiny. He’s former academic adviser, Stephen Quake, a star Stanford University bioengineer and inventor, is facing a Stanford investigation into his interaction with his former student. Rice University has been investigating Michael Deem, He’s doctoral adviser, because of allegations that he was actively involved in the project.
Quake has said he had nothing to do with He’s work. Deem has said he was present for parts of He’s research, but his lawyers have denied that he was actively involved.
During the Hong Kong conference, He said he used in vitro fertilization to create human embryos that were resistant to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He said he did it by using the CRISPR-Cas9 editing technique to deliberately disable a gene, known as CCR₅, that is used to make a protein HIV needs to enter cells.
The international condemnation from the scientific community that followed He’s announcement came because many nations, including the United States, had banned such work, fearing it could be misused to create “designer babies” and alter everything from eye color to IQ.
Although China lacks laws governing gene editing, the practice is opposed by many researchers there. He’s work prompted soul-searching among the country’s scientists, who wondered whether many of their peers had overlooked ethical issues in the pursuit of scientific achievement.
Many of them said it was long overdue for China to enact tough laws on gene editing. China’s vice minister of science and technology said last year that He’s scientific activities would be suspended, calling his conduct “shocking and unacceptable.” A group of 122 Chinese scientists called He’s actions “crazy” and his claims “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”
“I think a jail sentence is the proper punishment for him,” said Wang Yuedan, a professor of immunology at Peking University. “It makes clear our stance on the gene editing of humans — that we are opposed to it.”
“This is a warning effect, signaling that there is a bottom line that cannot be broken.”
Despite the outcry, He was unrepentant. A day after he made his announcement on the genetically edited babies, he defended his actions, saying they were safe and ethical, and he was proud of what he had done.
He faced a maximum penalty of more than 10 years in prison if his work had resulted in death. In cases that have caused “serious damage to the health of the victims,” the punishment is three to 10 years in prison.
The court said the trial had to be closed to the public to guard the privacy of the people involved.
He’s whereabouts had been something of a mystery for the past year. After his announcement, he was placed under guard in a small university guesthouse in Shenzhen and he has made no statements since. But his conviction was a foregone conclusion after the government said its initial investigation had found that He had “seriously violated” state regulations.
After He’s announcement, Bai Hua, the head of Baihualin, an AIDS advocacy group that helped He recruit the couples, said that he regretted doing so and was deeply worried about the families. In a statement posted on his organization’s official WeChat account, Bai, who uses a pseudonym, said he felt “deceived.”
When reached by phone, Bai said he had no idea where the babies were now and declined to say whether he was assisting the government with its investigation.