Gene-editing researchers jailed over illegal medical practices

Organisation: Position: Deadline Date: Location:

Three Chinese medical researchers have been given jail sentences and fines for using CRISPR gene-editing tools to alter human embryos later implanted and resulting in three babies born to two women.

The Shenzhen Nanshan District Peoples Court has convicted and sentenced researcher He Jiankui and two collaborators, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, for carrying out human embryo gene-editing and reproductive medical activities. Jurist reports that in a closed court session, the trio were criticised for illegal medical practices and violations of regulations and ethical standards related to their use of CRISPR gene-editing tools to alter the CCR5 gene in human embryos. These embryos were implanted using assisted reproduction and resulted in three babies born to two women.

The gene edits were intended to confer HIV immunity to the babies, but there is evidence in He’s unpublished manuscripts that the attempt may have failed and resulted in unintended edits. Instead of matching the CCR5 delta 32 mutation that occurs in nature, the embryos displayed partial edits and novel variations. The embryos may also have incurred unknown off-target mutations. The consequences of these edits and mutations remain unclear.

The court sentenced He Jiankui to three years in prison and imposed a fine of about $430,000. Zhang Renli was sentenced to two years in prison and fined about $145,000, while Qin Jinzhou was sentenced to one and a half years in prison and fined about $72,000.

Jurist reports that in addition to the court’s decision, the three researchers have also been given lifetime bans by Chinese health administration departments, preventing them from engaging in work related to gene-editing and assisted reproductive technologies. They have also been barred from obtaining financial funding for future research projects.

Commenting in a report in The Guardian, Robin Lovell-Badge at the Francis Crick Institute in London said it was “far too premature” for anyone to pursue genome editing on embryos that are intended to lead to pregnancies. “At this stage we do not know if the methods will ever be sufficiently safe and efficient, although the relevant science is progressing rapidly, and new methods can look promising. It is also important to have standards established, including detailed regulatory pathways, and appropriate means of governance.”

The report says these aspects are being looked at by the Academies Commission and by a World Health Organisation (WHO) committee, both of which are due to report in 2020.

Rob Lyons, a journalist and author based in Scotland, who specialises in health and environment issues questions in a RT report whether He really deserved to go to jail.

He writes: “For all the attacks on He and his colleagues, an important milestone has been reached. We now know that it is possible to edit the human genome in embryos fairly accurately and efficiently (the technique is still not perfect), then allow those embryos to be gestated and born.

“We have also had no reports to indicate that the children are anything other than healthy. We will, of course, have to wait and see if the children develop into normal, healthy adults.

“With the technology becoming cheaper, it is highly likely that we will see more of these cases in the future. It will be possible for companies to provide gene editing as a service to prospective parents who want to avoid having their children suffer from inherited conditions, for example.”

“So how should we regulate these things? For years, this technology has been exclusive to elite research institutes and universities subject to government regulation. Undoubtedly, many researchers are frustrated by the limitations put on them by these regulations. Could the benefits of genome editing become available far more quickly if some of those shackles were taken off?

“Many areas of science have been overshadowed by the precautionary principle in recent decades. Rather than speeding ahead with new developments, it is argued that evidence of harm should not be needed in order to impose regulations or even bans on particular types of technology.

“Perhaps we worry too much about the safety of new techniques and ignore the threat from not proceeding faster. How many more children, for example, will suffer from congenital diseases that could have been prevented if we were prepared to take more risks? There were many missteps and failures in the development of surgery, the treatment of cancer and much more. We should avoid deliberately abusing other people in trying to develop treatments, even if in the long run they will benefit many people, but perhaps more courage is required now.”

Lyons argues: “These are not easy issues to resolve and have been fought over by far greater ethicists than me. But if we simply draw the conclusion from He Jiankui's work that such research must be banned outright – or if scientists themselves shy away from exploring the limits of what is possible because of his punishment – we could end up hurting many more people than we protect.”

Jurist report

China Court documents (Chinese)

Technology Review report

The Guardian report

RT report

Receive Medical Brief's free weekly e-newsletter

Related Posts

Thank you for subscribing to MedicalBrief

MedicalBrief is Africa’s premier medical news and research weekly newsletter. MedicalBrief is published every Thursday and delivered free of charge by email to over 33 000 health professionals.

Please consider completing the form below. The information you supply is optional and will only be used to compile a demographic profile of our subscribers. Your personal details will never be shared with a third party.

Thank you for taking the time to complete the form.