China Confirms Three Gene Edited Babies Were Born Through He Jiankui's Experiments

China has confirmed that He Jiankui's gene editing experiments led to the birth of three babies. Previously, only two babies were known to have been born—twin girls named Lulu and Nana.

State news agency Xinhua announced that three scientists involved—He, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou—had been jailed for their involvement earlier this week. The report said He was sentenced to three years in prison "for illegally carrying out human embryo gene-editing intended for reproduction, in which three genetically edited babies were born."

The births of Lulu and Nana were announced by He at the International Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong in November 2018. He, who was subsequently fired from his position at the Southern University of Science and Technology, made very few details of the experiments known. He claimed to have modified embryos so any babies born from them would be more resistant to HIV.

In emails sent to American Nobel-winning scientist Craig Mello in April 2018, He confirmed the initial pregnancy. In one email, obtained by the Associated Press, He wrote: "Good news! The woman is pregnant, the genome editing a success! The embryo with CCR5 gene edited was transplanted to the woman 12 days ago, and today the pregnancy is confirmed."

Mello responded saying he did not want any involvement in the research saying he would "rather not be kept in the loop." He added there is no medical need for the experiments and that he is placing the health of the babies at risk. "I just don't see why you are doing this," Mello told He.

At the conference in Hong Kong, He also said another woman was also pregnant with a gene edited baby. Chinese officials confirmed this following an investigation into He's work.

William Hurlbut, a physician and bioethicist at Stanford University, told AFP that at the time of the conference, the woman's pregnancy had been detected "chemically, not clinically ... So it could be no more than four to six weeks old [at the time], so now it could be about 12 to 14 weeks." This would mean the baby would have been due in June or July 2019. Xinhua said the pregnant woman would be placed under medical observation, but since then there has been no news of her or the baby.

Other than its existence, nothing else is known about the third gene edited baby.

He has been widely condemned by the scientific community. Following the news He had been jailed for his work, Fyodor Urnov, genome-editing scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, told Newsweek: "As a result [of He's experiments], the field of gene editing will now carry the #designerbabies hashtag that cannot be deleted from the popular consciousness by any legal action.

"As CRISPR moves forward in the clinic for the essential medical goal of treating existing disease, and as we celebrate with cautious optimism the remarkable recent success in treating sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia, the hope is that He's criminal act will not only make him the Herostratus of the field, but act as a permanent warning against anyone considering following in his footsteps."

He Jiankui
He Jiankui at the International Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong in November, 2018. He has now been jailed for three years for his experiments. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images
China Confirms Three Gene Edited Babies Were Born Through He Jiankui's Experiments | Tech & Science