Chinese scientists jailed over ‘world’s first gene-edited babies’

Three scientists who claimed to be behind the first-ever gene-edited babies have been handed prison sentences for illegal medical practice, Chinese state media has said.

Lead researcher He Jiankui sparked controversy last year when he claimed to have created the infants by altering the DNA of embryos for several couples during fertility treatments.

The project, which saw two women become pregnant with gene-edited babies, was halted by the Chinese government and those involved have now been sentenced.

Xinhua news agency said He was given a three-year prison sentence and fined three million yuan (£229,000), and his colleagues received lesser penalties.

Zhang Renli was sentenced to two years and fined one million yuan (£76,000), while Qin Jinzhou received an 18-month sentence with a two-year reprieve and a 500,000 yuan (£38,000) fine.

Colleagues had feared that He, formerly with the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, could have faced the death penalty for his research if he had been charged with corruption and bribery.

His work was first made public in November 2018 following the birth of twin girls he said were gene-edited, sparking a global debate over the ethics of gene editing.

The practice is only allowed in the US and UK in laboratory research, with many warning that “designer babies” could lead to a new era of genetic inequality as embryos could be modified for more desirable traits.

Xu Nanping, an official at the Chinese ministry of science and technology, said at the time of He’s shocking announcement that the experiments were “extremely abominable in nature”.

Scientist He had told a summit on human gene editing in Hong Kong that the twins were born through regular IVF, using an egg that was modified before being inserted into the womb.

The conference’s organisers called his work “deeply disturbing” and “irresponsible”.

He has never presented peer-reviewed evidence for his claims.

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