Prison sentences given to scientists who gene-edited babies

Last week, China's state news agency announced the sentencing of three scientists for the creation of three gene-edited babies, two who were reportedly born in 2018, and a third who was not mentioned until recently.

genetically modified babiesImage Credit: Marcos__Silva / Shutterstock.com

The researchers, who all worked in China's Guangdong province, He Jiankui, Zhang Renli, and Qin Jinzhou, were all sentenced at the end of last year for their work, which led to three children controversially being born with edited genetics.

The team that shocked the world with the birth of genetically edited twins

Back in 2018, the scientific community and the general public were shocked by the work that researchers in China were reporting on. A team had announced the birth of the world's first genetically edited children, raising major questions surrounding the ethics and morales of the actions of the Chinese team.

He Jiankui, who announced the birth of two genetically edited twin girls, had caused major cause for concern surrounding the team's use of the gene-editing tool CRISPR. Up until this point, the technique had already caused a stir in the scientific community, due to the incredibly varied and useful list of applications that it had already found.

Since it was first developed for use in human genome editing back in 2013, CRISPR has already been used to help create new therapies and more accurate diagnoses for cancer, helped to eliminate malaria, improved IVF treatment, been instrumental in new HIV therapies, and much more.

However, He Jiankui and his colleagues' use of CRISPR demonstrated to the world the other side of genome editing. One which raises serious ethical concern.

Unqualified doctors in pursuit of fame

The trial, which was conducted in private, concluded with each of the three researchers being sentenced. He Jiankui was given three years in prison for practicing medicine without a license. Had his work caused deaths or serious health damage to the victims, this sentence could have been as long as ten years.

In addition, he was fined three million yuan ($430,000) for implanting genetically-engineered embryos into women. He was also found guilty of forging approval documents to give him the go-ahead to recruit the couple who participated in the study.

Zhang Renli received a lighter sentence of two years in prison and a 1 million yuan ($143,000) fine. Lastly, Qin Jinzhou received an 18-month sentence with a two-year reprieve and a 500,000 yuan ($72,000) fine.

The judge determined that all three researchers were not qualified as doctors, and had motives of seeking fame and profit from their work, crossing ethical boundaries to achieve this.

Sentences send message to the world that China opposes unethical gene-editing work

The work of this group has been deemed by others in the Chinese scientific community not only to be unethical and "crazy", but it is also considered to have damaged the reputation and advancement of science in China. The sentencing may instigate the enactment of tougher laws on gene editing, which are seen by many as long overdue.

Many in China's scientific community are pleased with the jail sentences, hoping that it will send a clear message to researchers in China that this work will not be tolerated, as well as sending the message to the rest of the world that China upholds ethical standards when it comes to scientific study.

Unfortunately, He Jiankui has not vocalized his regret for what he and his team did and does not recognize the potential danger he put participants in, nor the breach to ethics and morals. Rather, he is defending his research and believes standards of safety and ethics were observed.

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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