China con­victs re­searchers who gene-edited 3 ba­bies

Orlando Sentinel - - NATION & WORLD - By Ken Morit­sugu

BEI­JING — A Chi­nese sci­en­tist who set off an eth­i­cal de­bate with claims that he had made the world’s first ge­net­i­cally edited ba­bies was sen­tenced Mon­day to three years in prison be­cause of his re­search, state me­dia said.

He Jiankui, who was con­victed of prac­tic­ing medicine with­out a li­cense, was also fined $430,000 by a court in the south­ern city of Shen­zhen, China’s of­fi­cial Xin­hua News Agency re­ported. Two other re­searchers in­volved in the pro­ject re­ceived lesser sen­tences and fines.

The ver­dict said the three de­fen­dants had not ob­tained qual­i­fi­ca­tion as doc­tors, pur­sued fame and prof­its, de­lib­er­ately vi­o­lated Chi­nese reg­u­la­tions on sci­en­tific re­search and crossed an eth­i­cal line in both sci­en­tific re­search and medicine, ac­cord­ing to Xin­hua. It also said they had fab­ri­cated eth­i­cal re­view doc­u­ments.

The court also con­firmed a third birth, say­ing the re­searchers were in­volved in the births of three ge­need­ited ba­bies to two women. It said all three sci­en­tists pleaded guilty dur­ing the trial, which Xin­hua re­ported was closed to the public be­cause of pri­vacy con­cerns.

He, the lead re­searcher, shocked the sci­en­tific world when he an­nounced in Novem­ber 2018 that he had al­tered the em­bryos of twin girls who had been born the same month. He de­scribed his work in ex­clu­sive in­ter­views with The As­so­ci­ated Press.

The an­nounce­ment sparked a global de­bate over the ethics of gene edit­ing. He said he had used a tool called CRISPR to try to dis­able a gene that al­lows the AIDS virus to en­ter a cell, in a bid to give the girls the abil­ity to re­sist the in­fec­tion. The iden­tity of the chil­dren has not been re­leased, and it isn’t clear if the ex­per­i­ment suc­ceeded.

The CRISPR tool has been tested else­where in adults to treat dis­eases, but many in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity de­nounced He’s work as med­i­cally un­nec­es­sary and un­eth­i­cal, be­cause any ge­netic changes could be passed down to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. The U.S. for­bids edit­ing em­bryos ex­cept for lab re­search.

He, who is known as “JK,” told the AP in 2018 that he felt a strong re­spon­si­bil­ity to make an ex­am­ple, and that so­ci­ety would de­cide whether to al­low the prac­tice to go for­ward. He dis­ap­peared from public view shortly after he an­nounced his re­search at a con­fer­ence in Hong Kong 13 months ago, ap­par­ently de­tained by au­thor­i­ties, ini­tially in an apart­ment in Shen­zhen, a city in Guang­dong prov­ince that bor­ders Hong Kong.

It wasn’t clear if the three-year term in­cludes any of the time he has al­ready spent in cus­tody.

A Chi­nese sci­en­tist said the sen­tence should have been harsher to de­ter oth­ers. Kehkooi Kee, a Ts­inghua Univer­sity re­searcher who con­ducts gene-edit­ing re­search on stem cells, also said that He should be held re­spon­si­ble for any fall­out from the ex­per­i­ment on the lives of the ba­bies and their fam­i­lies.

Dr. Wil­liam Hurl­but, a Stan­ford Univer­sity bioethi­cist whose ad­vice He sought for more than a year be­fore his ex­per­i­ment, said he felt sorry for the sci­en­tist.

“I warned him things could end this way, but it was just too late,” Hurl­but wrote in an email ad­dressed to the AP; the director of the U.S. Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health, Dr. Fran­cis Collins; and gene-edit­ing pi­o­neer Jen­nifer Doudna at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley.

“Sad story — ev­ery­one lost in this (JK, his fam­ily, his col­leagues, and his coun­try), but the one gain is that the world is awak­ened to the se­ri­ous­ness of our ad­vanc­ing ge­netic tech­nolo­gies,” Hurl­but wrote.

Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Re­search Trans­la­tional In­sti­tute in Cal­i­for­nia, noted it’s al­most un­heard of for a sci­en­tist to get im­pris­oned “but in this case the sheer reck­less­ness and un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior war­ranted it.” Topol praised China for stand­ing up “for proper med­i­cal re­search con­duct.”

Be­fore set­ting up a lab at the South­ern Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy of China in Shen­zhen, He stud­ied in the U.S.

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