The researcher behind the “creation” of the world’s first “genetically modified” babies has just been sentenced to three years in prison by a Chinese court.
In November 2018, Chinese geneticist He Jiankui announced that he had modified the genome of two newborn twins. Its goal: to make them resistant to the AIDS virus. To do this, he relied on the CRISPR method, which makes it possible to “cut” pieces of DNA. Here in this case, a gene called CCR5.
This process, at the time, had never been used to modify human embryos before their transfer into the uterus as part of in vitro fertilization.
Some then praised the feat, like George Church, a renowned geneticist at Harvard University. The latter had indeed explained wanting to defend any attempt at genetic modification of HIV, described as “a major and growing threat to public health”.
Others, however, challenged the practice, fearing a soapy slope leading to a new form of eugenics.
“It is unacceptable,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, an expert in gene editing at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, pointing to an “immoral” ethical experience. “It’s far too premature,” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.
Three years in prison (and a heavy fine!)
He Jiankui was finally sentenced to three years in prison by a court in Shenzhen. He will also have to pay a fine of 3 million yuan (384,000 euros), according to the official news agency Xinhua.
The other two members of his team were also punished, but less severely. Zhang Renli was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 1 million yuan. As for Qin Jinzhou, he was sentenced to 18 months and fined 500,000 yuan.
“The three accused did not have the appropriate certification to practice medicine and, in seeking reputation and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations on scientific research and medical treatment,” the court said.
At the time, China did not really have a law in this still controversial area. New regulations put in place since February are now threatening a 100,000 yuan fine for genetic manipulation.
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