He Jiankui, then an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said in November 2018 that he had used gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to change the genes of twin girls, Lula and Nana, to protect them from getting infected with the virus in the future. The backlash in China and globally about the ethics of his research and work was fast and widespread, with He variously dubbed “rogue,” “China’s Frankenstein,” and “stupendously immoral”, according to sciencemag.com.
He and his collaborators forged ethical review materials and recruited men with AIDS who were part of a couple to carry out the gene-editing.
His experiments ultimately resulted in two women giving birth to three gene-edited babies, according to Xinhua.
The court also handed lesser sentences to Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, who worked at two unnamed medical institutions, for having conspired with He in his work, Xinhua News Agency reporting.
He Jiankui has been jailed for three years
He Jiankui and a colleague in the lab
Zhang was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 1 million yuan, while Qin was handed an 18-month sentence, but with a two-year reprieve, as well as a 500,000 yuan fine.
The court said: “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.
“They’ve crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.”
He Jiankui speaks at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing
He had also forged documents to get past the ethics review, as well as fabricating information which resulted in medical doctors had unknowingly implanted gene-edited embryos into two women, the court found.
At the time of his revelation in November last year, He said: “I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example.
“Society will decide what to do next.”
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Gene-editing involves DNA inserted, deleted, modified or replaced into a living organism
He Jiankui used a technique known as CRISPR
However, speaking after the announcement, Dr Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene-editing expert, told The Guardian the results as “unconscionable – an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible.”
Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, added: “If true, this experiment is monstrous.
“The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.”
One of the pig/monkey hybrids
“There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex.
“And there are effective treatments if one does contract it.
“This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.”
The latest developments are certain to provoke an ongoing debate about medical ethics, coming just weeks after the birth of the world’s first monkey-pig hybrids in a Chinese lab.
Material from Cynomolgus monkeys was used in the experiments
The incredible experiment saw two piglets born with DNA from both pigs and cynomolgus monkeys, although both died within week.
The goal of the research is to grow human organs inside live animals for use in human transplants, although just 10 piglets were born from more than 4,000 implanted in sows.
California stem cell biologist Paul Knoepfler said: “Given the extremely low chimeric efficiency and the deaths of all the animals, I see this as fairly discouraging.”