Wed. Jan 29th, 2020

A scientist who genetically edited babies was just sentenced to 3 years in prison. Here’s how he did it and why scientists around the world are outraged.


A scientist who genetically edited babies was just sentenced to 3 years in prison. Here’s how he did it and why scientists around the world are outraged.

Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who shocked the world in 2018 when he claimed responsibility for the birth of the first two gene-edited babies, has been sentenced to three years in prison, according to Chinese state media reports.

The court sentenced two of He’s colleagues to time in prison as well, concluding that the three violated Chinese regulations, practiced medicine without a license, and crossed an ethical line with their use of the Crispr gene-editing technology on embryos to make them resistant to HIV

He was also fined $430,000, according to Xinhua.

According to state media reports, the filing from the court included that a third genetically edited baby had been born, in addition to the initial twins, nicknamed Lulu and Nana.

He’s work was the first to apply the gene-editing technology tool Crispr to manipulate a gene associated with HIV in embryos. It drew immense outrage from the scientific community both in China and around the world, with scientists calling his work unethical and dangerous.

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The introduction of Crispr

Crispr is an easy method of tweaking DNA that came to light around 2012. By 2015, the gene-editing technology Crispr-Cas9 earned a Breakthrough of the Year Award from Science Magazine, beating out developments like the Pluto flyby.

Read more: Scientists may soon be able to ‘cut and paste’ DNA to cure deadly diseases and design perfect babies

Since its introduction, the technology’s been used in everything from experimental treatments that have now entered human trials to everyday lab science.

In 2019, human trials got underway to see how the gene-editing technology works in blood disorders like sickle cell anemia and beta-thalessemia. The trials are being conducted in the US, Canada and Europe. The early-stage trials have had positive results in the two patients treated so far, biotech companies Vertex Pharmaceuticals and CRISPR Therapeutics said in a November release

Read more: We’ll be eating the first Crispr’d foods within 5 years, according to a geneticist who helped invent the blockbuster gene-editing tool

Why scientists weren’t too happy about He Jiankui’s work

The conversation around the potential of Crispr took an abrupt turn in 2018 when Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed that the first two gene-edited babies had been born

He told the Associated Press at the time that using the gene-editing tool, he’d disabled CCR5, a gene that forms a way for HIV to enter a cell. At the time, he had said that he had altered embryos for seven couples with one pregnancy resulting thus far.

Chinese courts on Monday alluded to a third gene-edited baby being born, state media reported. 

Shortly after He announced the birth of the first two babies, China shut down his work and put him under investigation. 

The editing of human embryos raises a whole host of ethical questions that led to outrage from the scientific community. Changes made to an embryo have widespread effects to the entire body as the baby develops and can even be inherited. Ongoing human trials using Crispr, which are still in early stages, are looking at making tweaks to certain genes in adults, which don’t have the potential to be passed down to other generations. 

Shortly after He announced the births, 120 Chinese scientists called for gene-editing regulations. 

“The Pandora’s Box has been opened. We need to close it before we lose our last chance,” the scientists wrote at the time, as translated by Quartz. “We as biomedical researchers strongly oppose and condemn any attempts on editing human embryo genes without scrutiny on ethics and safety!”

The scientists credited with the discovery of Crispr also spoke out against it at the time

“If verified, this work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing,” Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of Crispr and professor at UC-Berkeley said in a statement at the time.

Beyond gene edits for protection against HIV — which can itself create issues for those babies later on — the scientific community has long been concerned with whether genetic modification could lead to “designer babies” manipulated to have certain traits like a preferred hair color or superior intelligence.

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