Prison Sentences for Chinese Scientist Who Changed Babies' Genes

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30 December, 2019

A Chinese court has sentenced the scientist who created the world's first "gene-edited" babies to three years in prison.

He Jiankui was found guilty of illegally practicing medicine and

violating research laws. China's official Xinhua news agency announced the court's decision Monday.

In November 2018, He Jiankui was working as an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. He announced to the world that he had used gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to change the genes of twin baby girls. He claimed to have protected them from getting infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The announcement fueled an international debate over the ethics of gene editing. The identity of the girls has not been released, and it is not clear if the experiment succeeded.

The CRISPR tool has been tested in other places to treat diseases in adults. But many in the scientific community rejected He's work as medically unnecessary and morally wrong. That is because the genetic changes could be passed down to future generations. The United States bans editing embryos except for laboratory research.

In 2018, He Jiankui told the Associated Press that he felt a strong responsibility to make an example. He said that society would decide whether to permit the practice to go forward. He disappeared shortly after he announced his research at a conference in Hong Kong 13 months ago. It appears that government officials detained him, first in the city of Shenzhen near the border with Hong Kong.

In addition to a prison sentence, the court ordered He Jiankui to pay about $430,000. The court ordered shorter sentences for Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou for having helped He with his work. They worked at two unnamed medical centers.

Xinhua reported the court's decision as saying: "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 decision also said that the researchers "have crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics."

It was not clear if the three-year prison term includes any of the time He has already spent in Chinese detention.

One Chinese scientist said the sentence should have been greater to urge others not to follow in He's work. Kehkooi Kee is a Tsinghua University researcher who does gene-editing research on stem cells. Kehkooi Kee said He Jiankui should be held responsible for anything that happens to the babies or their families as a result of the experiment.

William Hurlbut is a Stanford University bioethicist whose advice He sought for more than a year before his experiment. Hurlbut said he felt sorry for the scientist, his wife and two young daughters.

"I warned him things could end this way, but it was just too late," Hurlbut wrote in an email to the Associated Press.

He added, "Sad story — everyone lost in this...but the one gain is that the world is awakened to the seriousness of our advancing genetic technologies."

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Pete Musto adapted this story for VOA Learning English using materials from Reuters and the Associated Press. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

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Words in This Story

edit(ed) – v. to make changes, correct mistakes

practicingv. having a professional medical or legal business

twinadj. used to describe children who are either one of two babies that are born at the same time to the same mother

ethicsn. rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad

properadj. correct according to social or moral rules

certificationn. official approval to do something professionally or legally

deliberately – adv. in a way that is meant, intended, or planned

regulation(s) – n. an official rule or law that says how something should be done

advancing – v. continuing in a process of development

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