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Chinese scientist who edited babies’ genes sentenced to prison

HE JIANKUI
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He Jiankui gets three years for “illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction.”

A local court in China has sentenced a scientist who performed gene-editing to three years in prison and a fine of $430,000. The court, in China’s southern district of Shenzhen, convicted He Jiankui of “illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction.”

He, a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed in November last year that he had manipulated the embryos with a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR in a bid to make them immune to HIV infection, according to the South China Morning Post. The court also sentenced his collaborators, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou.

“None of the three defendants acquired doctor’s qualifications. [They] craved fame and fortune, and deliberately went against the country’s regulations on scientific research and medical management. [They] went beyond the bottom lines of scientific research and medical ethics,” according to the Nanshan District Court in Shenzhen. According to the SCMP, the court also found He had forged documents to get past an ethics review and had fabricated information so that medical doctors had unknowingly implanted gene-edited embryos into two women.

The Post further reported that He, 35, graduated from the University of Science and Technology of China with a physics degree and, “armed with a state scholarship, travelled to the US to pursue his scientific dream.”

He switched disciplines in the US to study biophysics at Rice University in Houston, where he first worked with CRISPR, the gene editing technology which he used to modify the embryo DNA. He then moved to Stanford University, where he studied with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics, who specializes in DNA sequencing but not gene editing.

According to the SCMP, the People’s Republic of China formulated guidelines in 2003, requiring gene editing projects to have the approval of ethics committees at related research institutes. “The guidelines also specify that genetically edited embryos should not be transplanted into a woman or another species. The principles were in line with international standards for human gene modifications. China released updated draft regulations on gene editing and other potentially risky new biomedical technologies in February this year.”

“This scientist was allowed to do experiments with children, using technology that had not yet been deemed safe,” a bioethicist, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, told Aleteia after He first revealed his experiment. “Because when you’re just editing things, when you edit particular genes, one of the big concerns right now is that we do not know how precise that gene editing is. There’s all this concern that it will edit something else, somewhere else, and it would damage the genome in some way. We don’t know whether or not he will have accelerated, for example, some other disease in these children, or expose them to cancer in some way. There are so many things that could have gone wrong that we have no way of knowing.”

 

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