Chinese court sentences Jiankui He to 3 years in jail — and confirms birth of 3rd CRISPR baby
A year after shocking the world with the revelation that the world’s first CRISPR gene edited babies had been born, Jiankui He is going to jail for three years.
The initial trial found He — a former professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen who hadn’t been seen publicly for months — guilty of illicitly practicing medicine alongside two other researchers who assisted him in “illegally executing human embryo editing and reproductive medical activities with reproductive purposes,” according to state news agency Xinhua. The trio were also fined about $640,000 (RMB$4.5 million) collectively.
He’s controversial experiment involved recruiting HIV positive men and their wives for an IVF procedure in which the sperm were “washed” and the embryo was genetically tinkered to inactivate the CCR5 gene — as one particular mutation, Δ32, had been tied to protection against the virus. While defending his actions at a Hong Kong conference last November, He said the protection can free the children of stigma associated with HIV.
A total of three babies, including twin girls with the pseudonyms Lulu and Nana , were born as a result. While He had made it clear that a third pregnancy was underway, the birth wasn’t confirmed until today.
Scientists, bioethicists, biotech executives and research institutions from around the world have since torn his case to pieces, questioning everything from the medical need and the consent process to technical flaws and spotty data.
The sentence affirmed only some of those worries, notably finding that He and his associates forged documents of ethical approval.
William Hurlbut, a Stanford bioethicist who has talked to He about his work, described it as a sad story in which everyone — He, his young family with a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, his colleagues, and his country — lost. But it’s also awakened the world to “the seriousness of our advancing genetic technologies.”
“Regarding the verdict, that is a judicial issue and I am not familiar with Chinese law on these matters,” he wrote in a statement provided to Endpoints News. “Having said that, it is important to realize that he did not act alone and received considerable encouragement and cooperation in his project—both within China and internationally. It would be a mistake to consider what he did to be driven simply by selfish goals of fame and fortune. I talked with him at great length and I can assure you that he also had strongly idealistic motives in what he was trying to do—and believed he would bring honor to his nation.”
This means that we must take the occasion not just to mete out punishment, but to initiate a serious international discussion about how to guide and govern the application of our emerging biotechnology.
While He’s sentence was longer than the other two (Yinli Zhang was sentenced to 2 years in jail and fined $140,000 while Jinzhou Qin gets 1 year and 6 months and $72,000 in fines), it appears to be a “relatively light sentence” according to Kiran Musunuru, a gene editing expert at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-founder of Verve Therapeutics.
“Apparently the maximum sentence under Chinese law is 10 years of jail — but it’s actually in line with the maximum penalties for violating the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act which to me seems like the closest parallel in U.S. law,” he wrote to Endpoints News.
The People’s Court of Nanshan District of Shenzhen ruled that He, Qin and Zhang organized multiple pre-IVF checks for prospective parents, injected gene editing reagents banned in clinical settings into fertilized embryos and tricked unknowing hospital personnel into implanting the embryos for pregnancies. In doing so, their actions verged beyond scientific experiments and should be considered medical. Furthermore, they also violated regulations that prohibited IVF procedures for anyone with serious heritable diseases (HIV in this case) and ethics guidelines forbidding the editing of human embryos.
Xinhua reported that the case was tried in private on December 27 after the procuratorate (China’s prosecution and investigation body) prosecuted on July 31. He, Qin and Zhang pled guilty in court, per CCTV News.
The whole debacle began in March 2017, the report stated, when He authorized Qin — an embryo culture technician and cell researcher at Luohu Human Hospital — to search for eight couples with HIV-positive husbands. They allegedly arranged for someone to stand in for six of them during medical tests as they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for IVF. He then asked Zhang, a researcher at the Guangdong People’s Hospital, to forge ethical assessment documents and later inject CRISPR reagents they obtained from overseas to fertilized embryos from six couples.
Apparently between May and June in 2018, the team also arranged for the other two couples to fly to Thailand for embryo implantation. One of the couples’ embryos got CRISPR’d but the surgery failed to result in a pregnancy.
News of the experiment leaked in late November 2018 just as He was finalizing a painstakingly planned public debut of what he clearly assumed was a celebrated landmark achievement. Instead, his employer and country promptly disowned him and it elicited a maelstrom of criticism highlighting fears that unbridled human embryo editing could be dangerous from a scientific, ethical, and societal perspective.
Calls for a binding global moratorium on human clinical germline experimentation were made by a cadre of scientists, including those who originally developed CRISPR/Cas9 as a gene editing tool, until the safety of the technique has been established and a consensus on acceptable use has been reached. The NIH supported the call and a group of biotech execs followed suit.
Globally, guidelines vary widely about the extent (or lack thereof) of germline research — introducing heritable changes to sperm, eggs or embryos — is permitted. Some regions ban it altogether; some allow lab research but not pregnancies (like in the UK); while others have no policies. In the US, the NIH does not fund germline research, but private funding is sanctioned.
As part of guidelines introduced in 2003, China requires projects that involve gene editing to solicit the approval of ethics committees before they can be sanctioned. However, those regulations prohibit the implantation of genetically tweaked embryos into women or other species. Following He’s ethically dubious experiment, China updated its draft regulations this February.
Despite the unanimous condemnation, some including Musunuru argue that He’s papers should be published for the scientific record and to keep other rogue scientists in check. But that might seem even more unlikely now.
“In the Xinhua announcement about the jail sentence, it’s stated that the scientists will be on a ‘black list’ and will have ‘life-long bans from various types of scientific research projects for financial support’ — hard to know exactly what that means, but it suggests to me that they won’t be permitted to go back to doing science, which would make it hard for them to ever publish their work in legitimate peer-reviewed journals,” Musunuru, who chronicled the scandal in a book titled The CRISPR Generation, wrote.
Officials told Xinhua that the health authorities have committed to follow-up visits and checkups for all the babies under their guardians’ consent.
With contribution by Natalie Grover