"He Jiankui" by The He Lab / CC BY 3.0

What CRISPR-baby prison sentences mean for research

Jan 3, 2020

By David Cyranoski

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.

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