China jails three researchers involved in gene-edited babies 

Team Udayavani, Dec 30, 2019, 5:02 PM IST

Beijing: Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who shocked the world by announcing the birth of first genetically edited babies, was jailed on Monday for three years along with two others with a lesser sentence for illegal medical practice by a court in southern China.

He, who was also fined USD 430,000, claimed in November 2018 that the world’s first genetically edited babies were born with their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.

His announcement created a furore in the international scientific community about the possible ethical and medical impact of his experiment and led to an immediate investigation from Chinese authorities.

The Nanshan District People’s Court of Shenzhen said He, a former associate professor with the Southern University of Science and Technology, and two others were convicted for illegal medical practice.

Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou from two medical institutes in Guangdong Province received jail terms of two years and 18 months with a two-year reprieve, respectively, as well as fines, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

According to the verdict, the trio, not qualified to work as doctors, had knowingly violated the country’s regulations and ethical principles to practice gene editing in assisted reproductive medicine.

The verdict and previous investigations showed He’s team fabricated an ethical review certificate and recruited eight volunteer couples (with males who tested positive for HIV) intending to produce HIV-immune babies. They implanted genetically-engineered embryos into the females’ body and impregnated two of them, who gave birth to three babies.

It said their acts were “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain” and have seriously “disrupted medical order.”

The three pleaded guilty during the trial.

Soon after He’s announcement, Shao Feng, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and deputy director of the state-run National Institute of Biological Sciences, said the whole incident would need to be investigated thoroughly.

An expert in the field, Shao told the official media that he is worried about potential health risks the children will face as well as the incident’s effect on the human race.

Once the gate of gene-editing is wide open, the human race will be finished, he said.

The technology is strong but the terrifying fact is that anyone slightly trained in a lab can perform it.

He has not been seen in public since his announcement of the births at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November.

Some media reports have claimed he is being kept under house arrest or even detained by police.

A spokeswoman at the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, He’s employer, has previously dismissed talk of his detention as rumours.

He has faced a wave of condemnation from China’s scientific community and health officials have insisted they knew nothing of his experiments.

China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has ordered research institutes to suspend all of He’s scientific projects.

An investigation into He’s work found that the ethics review committee at the Harmonicare Women and Children’s Hospital, which the scientist said had approved his research, was not registered with the city’s health authorities.

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