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What CRISPR-baby prison sentences mean for research

Chinese court sends strong signal by punishing He Jiankui and two colleagues.

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He Jiankui is reflected in a glass panel

He Jiankui stunned the world when he declared that he'd created the first gene-edited babies.Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP/Shutterstock

A Chinese court has sentenced He Jiankui, the biophysicist who announced that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies, to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice”, and handed down shorter sentences to two colleagues who assisted him. The punishments put to rest speculation over whether the Chinese government would bring criminal charges for an act that shocked the world, and are likely to deter others from similar behaviour, say Chinese scientists.

There has been much speculation about whether other scientists would follow in He‘s footsteps, especially given the ease of using the most popular gene-editing tool, CRISPR–Cas9. But the punishments are “definitely a deterrent to similar misconduct in China”, says Wei Wensheng, a gene-editing researcher at Peking University in Beijing.

On 30 December, the People’s Court of Nanshan District of Shenzhen announced that, in the pursuit of “fame and profit”, He and two colleagues had flouted regulations and research and medical ethics by altering genes in human embryos that were then implanted into two women, according to Xinhua News Agency. One woman gave birth to twin girls in late 2018; the court said a third baby has been born but did not say when, a revelation that fits with a claim made by He in November 2018 to have implanted a gene-edited embryo in a second woman.

The court fined He 3 million yuan (US$430,000). Collaborators Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou received lesser prison sentences and fines.

The health ministry has also banned the researchers from ever working with human reproductive technology again, and the science ministry has banned them from applying for research funding, according to Xinhua.

Scientists in China who are currently researching CRISPR for its potential to treat various genetic diseases by modifying cells other than embryos say that they fear He's actions might have a chilling effect on their work, too, even though it is not as ethically fraught.

Preliminary stage

He shocked the world’s scientists in November 2018 when he announced that his team at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen had used the CRISPR gene-editing system to edit DNA in human embryos to make them less susceptible to HIV. The edits were designed to disrupt a gene that codes for a protein that allows HIV to enter immune cells.

Scientists condemned He’s actions, saying that gene-editing technology was too premature to be used for reproductive purposes. They also said the experiment was problematic because it risked introducing a mutation with potentially harmful effects while offering little benefit — the babies were not at high risk of contracting HIV. In the wake of the scandal, researchers called for a moratorium on gene editing in embryos and germline cells.

At the time, Chinese law academics told Nature that He could face a range of criminal charges, including practising medicine without adequate qualifications, which can be punished by up to ten years in prison, forging ethics documents and skirting laws banning the use of assisted reproductive technologies in people with HIV. He was fired by his university in January last year.

The court’s announcement puts to rest the suspicions of some researchers that the government would not bring criminal case against He because of the increased media attention it would generate, says Tang Li, a science-policy researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai. He’s experiments seemed to embarrass the country, and discussion of them was widely censored on Chinese social media. But Tang says the immediate disclosure of the court’s result demonstrates China’s commitment on research ethics. This is a big step forward in promoting the responsible research and the ethical use of technology, she says.

Although an unpublished manuscript describing the experiments lists ten authors, according to MIT Technology Review, He, Zhang and Qin are the only ones to face penalties so far. The manuscript says Zhang “performed the human embryo microinjections”, MIT Technology Review reports. Zhang, who was affiliated with the Guangdong Academy of Medical Sciences and Guangdong General Hospital in Guangzhou at the time of the experiments, has been sentenced to two years in prison and fined one million yuan. Attempts to obtain a comment from the hospital about whether Zhang still works there were unsuccessful. Qin, an embryologist at Southern University of Science and Technology who was named as the applicant on the experiment listed on China’s clinical-trial website, was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence and fined 500,000 yuan, according to Xinhua. The university has also not responded to Natures queries about his current employment status.

Wei says it is unlikely that He will be able to work again as a researcher at a Chinese institution or university.

The trio’s prison sentences, combined with the research-funding ban, send a powerful message to other researchers doing any type of gene-editing work in clinical trials in China, says Lu You, an oncologist at Sichuan University in Chengdu who was the first to test CRISPR gene-editing in a person, in a trial that modified adult cells — not embryos — taken from patients in order to treat lung cancer. Lu is in the process of publishing tho results. “If I was a newcomer, a researcher wishing to start gene-editing research and clinical trials, the case would be enough to alert me to the cost of such violations,” he says.

But Wei, who uses CRISPR tools to study how humans respond to microbial diseases, is concerned that the international condemnation that followed He‘s explosive announcement in 2018 might have a wider chilling effect on CRISPR work in China. Wei worries that it might be difficult to get approval to use gene editing tools in clinical trials, including using the tool to edit adult cells, which does not raise the same ethical questions as work in embryos, although he has not heard of researchers facing such issues yet.

Nature 577, 154-155 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00001-y

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