China Jails Scientist Who Genetically Altered Unborn Babies

Bioethics   |   Micaiah Bilger   |   Dec 31, 2019   |   2:28PM   |   Beijing, China

A Chinese scientist who genetically modified three babies’ DNA before they were born was sentenced to three years in prison Monday.

He Jiankui’s experiment caused international outrage after he announced in November 2018 that he had successfully changed the DNA of twin girls Lulu and Nana when they were embryos. The experiment involved editing a gene associated with HIV infections to make the twins resistant. One of the problems with the experiment, however, is that no one knows the effects of genetically altered DNA on human beings or their offspring.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported He was sentenced to three years in prison Monday for illegally practicing medicine. He also was fined 3 million yuan (about $430,000).

Two other scientists, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzho, who were involved in He’s experiment also received lesser sentences in the private trial, the Mirror reports.

For the first time, the state news outlet confirmed that He had genetically changed a third baby’s DNA as well.

“The three accused did not have the proper certification to practice medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment,” the court ruled, according to Xinhua. “They’ve crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.”

He was an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen before he was fired and charged for the unethical experiment.

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He pleaded guilty, according to the Mirror.

Scientists across the world expressed skepticism and alarm about He’s human experimentation. Even if He did successfully edit the three babies’ DNA, there is no way of knowing the future effects on the babies or their children.

He initially defended his experiment, arguing that scientists have a responsibility to work to end the growing HIV problem in China.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next.”

His experiment has not been verified independently, according to various reports. However, a U.S. scientist also apparently was involved in the project: Professor Michael Deem, of Rice University in Texas. Deem was He’s adviser when he studied in the U.S. He also attended Stanford University before returning to China, where he ran a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen and two genetics companies, according to a 2018 AP report.

In March, a group of international scientists called for a global moratorium on the genetic engineering of human beings as a result of He’s experiment. About 30 countries currently prohibit human germline editing, according to the scientists.

Then, in June, bioethics attorney Wesley Smith urged the global community to act quickly after new research suggested He’s experiment may have put the babies at a higher risk of early mortality

“What a reckless, irresponsible man,” Smith wrote. “But then so is the international community, which appears unable or unwilling to forge a legally binding world-wide moratorium on human germline editing experiments to allow time to work out the many ethical and safety issues inextricably knotted with this technology.”

David Albert Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in England, previously summed up the problems with this form of human experimentation.
“Instead of treating existing human beings in ways that respect their rights and do not pose excessive risks to them or to future generations, we are manufacturing new human beings for manipulation and quality control, and experimenting on them with the aim of forging greater eugenic control over human reproduction,” Jones wrote.