China has jailed a researcher who made headlines around the world after announcing his involvement in the births of the first genetically-edited babies.
While Dr He did not provide any corroborating evidence or submit his research for peer review, after an investigation Chinese authorities confirmed the work had been carried out and that the researchers had “deliberately evaded oversight”.
Dr He was convicted on Monday of practising medicine illegally and violating Chinese scientific research regulations, as well as forging ethical review documents. He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 3 million yuan (£330,000).
The sentencing, reported by the state-run Xinhua news agency, confirmed for the first time that a third baby – from a different mother to the twins – was born as part of the project before it was shut down by the authorities.
Two other people, researchers working under Dr He, were convicted and received lesser sentences. Zhang Renli was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1 million yuan. Qin Jinzhou received an 18-month sentence, suspended for two years, and a 500,000 yuan fine.
Dr He had been held under armed guard at a university guesthouse since he declared his work to the world, including in major interviews with Western media.
The court said he and his team “crossed the bottom line of ethics” and “in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment”.
Dr He used gene-editing technology called Crispr to alter the genomes of embryos during the IVF process. Crispr is a low-cost, easy-to-use technique whereby an enzyme is targeted to cut out an unwanted section of DNA.
Since the method of teaching the enzyme which DNA to target was first described in 2012 and 2013, the technique has already led to major breakthroughs in crop development and fixing genetic diseases in animals.
But ethicists say using it to alter the DNA of human embryos is inherently problematic. Not only will the desired genetic change be passed on to all the subject’s future offspring, but it is also impossible to know for sure what untended consequences the editing process might have.
Human clinical trials have been carried out with Crispr – but as therapies for treating blood disorders like sickle cell anaemia, not to alter a person’s entire genetic make-up.