Chinese scientists sentenced to prison for genetically engineering babies

By: Dhipa Palani

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A Chinese court has sentenced biomedical scientist He Jiankui and two other scientists to prison on Monday, December 30 for “illegal medical practice” for genetically engineering three babies.

He was sentenced to three years in prison and is facing a fine of $430,000. The other two scientists, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, received lighter sentences and fines. Zhang was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $143,346 while Qin was sentenced to 18 months in prison with a two-year reprieve and a $71,673 fine. 

“The three accused did not have the proper certification to practice medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment,” the court ruled in its verdict.

The lead researcher said that he had helped create the world’s first genetically edited babies, a set of twin girls born in November 2018. China has also confirmed the birth of a third gene-edited baby without further information regarding its gender or health status. 

He, who lectured at Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology, along with a team of researchers had been recruiting couples to create the world’s first gene-edited babies.

What is a genetically engineered baby?

Genetic engineering is the manipulation of genetic material by either molecular biological techniques or by selective breeding. It is used by scientists to enhance or modify the characteristics of an individual organism. The practice is an initiative to create babies resistant to multiple diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), smallpox and cholera, as well as genetic diseases. 

Chinese scientists began experimenting with genetically engineered babies using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool in 2018. CRISPR pronounced “Crisper” stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.

A genetically engineered baby can be “designed” in a lab using the CRISPR-Cas9 tool to add, remove or alter genetic material at particular locations in the genome. This would mean that scientists can now create babies with enhanced desired characteristics such as taller, more intelligent or healthier babies.  

Ethical concerns

Germline cell and human embryo genome editing is currently illegal in many countries due to ethical concerns.

Although enhanced human traits such as improved health and physical appearance are some of the benefits of gene editing, heritable human genome editing can pose a significant existential threat. This is due to changes that may persist throughout the human population for generations with unknown risks.