A scientist who created the world’s first genetically modified twins has been sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice” by a Chinese court.
He Jiankui, who sparked a global outcry last year by revealing the birth of twins whose genes had been altered with the editing technique known as Crispr, was convicted of “illegal medical practice” on Monday by a court in the southern province of Guangdong, which also fined him Rmb3m ($430,000).
The court said that three genetically modified children had been born as a result of the scientist’s research, which involved forging ethical review documents and deception of patients. It did not provide any details on the children or their current health. Health officials revealed in January that a second woman was pregnant with a foetus whose genes were edited by He.
Two other scientists, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, were given jail sentences of two years and 18 months respectively for aiding the research.
The three men “deliberately violated national regulations on scientific research and medical management, crossed an ethical bottom line, and rashly applied gene editing technology”, the court said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
In 2018 the doctor had said he was “proud” of his experiment and that the twins’ genes were edited to give them an immunity to HIV, but his work drew condemnation from scientists in China and abroad on ethical and safety grounds.
The unidentified twin girls had a single gene, named CCR5, altered to make them less susceptible to HIV infection when their embryos were just a day old, according to He. That would be early enough to become incorporated in the germ line, meaning the resistance could be passed to future generations.
Such far-reaching changes are prohibited in several countries including the US. China has banned the development of genetically-altered embryos beyond 14 days, but there is no specific punishment attached to the regulation.
He’s lawyers could not be reached for comment, and it was not clear whether he would appeal.
China has emerged as a world leader in Crispr research, which scientists say has huge potential in treating genetically-linked diseases. Chinese researchers performed the first Crispr editing on monkeys in 2014, and used the technique on human embryos for the first time a year later.
Separately on Monday, a court in the city of Chengdu sentenced Wang Yi, a Christian pastor, to nine years in jail for “inciting state subversion” and “illegal business operation” in the latest prosecution to target protestants who operate unregistered “house churches”.
Tens of millions of Chinese people are estimated to worship at such underground churches, but Beijing has in recent years stepped-up efforts to shut them down and encourage Christians to attend state-run churches.
Chinese courts often announce verdicts on sensitive cases towards the end of the calendar year, as judges are under pressure to meet annual work targets. Rights groups also accuse Beijing of timing human rights hearings for the Christmas period, when they may receive less international attention.