A Chinese court sentenced researcher He Jiankui to three years in prison on Monday for “illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction”.
The state-run Xinhua news agency reports that the researcher was also fined 3 million yuan (or 430,000 dollars) for the unauthorised clinical experiment that resulted in what he claimed was the world’s first genetically edited human babies.
He, formerly an associate professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology, acted “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain” and “disrupted medical order,” the Nanshan District People’s Court of Shenzhen said.
The researcher announced at a scientific summit in Hong Kong in November 2018 that the babies – twin girls known as Lulu and Nana – were born with their DNA altered to prevent them from contracting HIV.
The announcement was met with widespread condemnation in China and around the world, raising complex ethical issues about how gene-editing technology should be used.
Later that month, Chinese authorities suspended all of He’s research activities.
It emerged that his experiments were also carried out without any discussion in the broader scientific community.
Two other researchers on He’s team were handed lesser sentences and fines.
Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, from two other medical institutes in southern Guangdong Province, received fines and jail terms of two years and 18 months with a two-year reprieve, respectively.
All three pleaded guilty to the charge of illegal medical practice during the trial, which authorities said was closed to protect the personal privacy of those involved.
According to the verdict, the three knowingly violated the country’s regulations and ethical principles to practice controversial gene editing.
Investigations showed that He’s team failed to obtain doctors’ qualifications and forged ethical review certificates.
They also hid the truth of the procedure, which involved using sperm from HIV-positive men to inseminate female test subjects, from both the doctors carrying out the procedure and the volunteer subjects.
According to the British scientific journal Nature, Lulu and Nana could suffer from genetic mutations and shortened life spans due to He’s gene editing experiment.
The current state of their health is not publicly known.
Most countries have banned the practice of editing the genes of unborn children on moral and ethical grounds.
In China, the procedure is allowed for “non-reproductive purposes,” according to regulations issued by health ministry in 2003.