Chinese Scientist He Jiankui Jailed for Creating World's First Gene Edited Babies 'In the Pursuit of Personal Fame and Gain'

The Chinese scientist who created the world's first gene edited babies has been jailed for three years for his illegal experiments, state officials have announced. He Jiankui was also fined three million yuan ($430,000) for his work, which he announced at the International Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong in November, 2018.

At the summit, He told attendees how he had modified embryos so they would be more resistant to HIV. His work led to the birth of twin girls, named Lulu and Nana.

His announcement was met with worldwide condemnation and shortly after he was fired from his position at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. He was then apparently placed under some form of house arrest while authorities in China investigated his work.

In January, state news agency Xinhua announced that the government had concluded He had carried out gene editing activities on humans despite this practice being banned in the country. The case was then handed to the Ministry of Public Security. Xinhua said He's actions had violated scientific and ethical integrity and that the people involved in the research would be "dealt with seriously according to the law."

The news agency has now announced that He, along with Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, from medical institutions in Guangdong Province, had been jailed. He was given a three year sentence, while Zhang and Qin were given terms of two years and 18 months respectively.

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

The court, in Shenzhen city, said all three had knowingly broken the laws around gene editing. The verdict said the three had acted "in the pursuit of personal fame and gain."

When He made his announcement, few details of what he did were made available. Earlier this month, manuscripts of his research were published by MIT Technology Review, with experts calling the work "delusional and outrageous." Fyodor Urnov, genome-editing scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, told MIT that the manuscripts show how no effort was made to carry out laboratory experiments to show the gene editing worked before implanting the embryos in a woman. "[This] proves that the research team placed their interests above those of the couple who donated the embryos and of their prospective children."

In an email to Newsweek, Urnov said: "It is up to scholars of the law to decide whether He's actions warrant the imprisonment. That said, what needs to be imprisoned, metaphorically speaking, is the entire enterprise of human embryo editing for reproductive purposes.It has no medical justification, is a classic case of 'a solution in search of a problem,' and can be egregiously abused."

Urnov said He's manuscript shows "delusional hubris" was what drove the team. "As a result, the field of gene editing will now carry the #designerbabies hashtag that cannot be deleted from the popular consciousness by any legal action," Urnov said. "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."

This article has been updated to include comments from Fyodor Urnov.