Chinese Doctor Sentenced to Three Years in Prison After Creating Genetically Modified Babies


Photo by Alamy

William Rantis

A Chinese doctor, He Jiankui, has been sentenced to three years in prison after a secret trial convicted him of illegal medicine practice. The doctor is responsible for the gene editing of two twin girls and one other person, making him the first doctor to genetically engineer human babies. The purpose of this was to make the babies immune to the HIV virus.

It isn’t at all clear whether that the result of this illegal experiment was intended, however. The modification of the gene, done with CRISPR technology, was not done exactly as Jiankui had intended, with mutation beyond the targeted gene occurring. Even if done perfectly, altering the CCR5 gene may have unintended consequences, as people with the mutation Jiankui introduced, though being immune to HIV, are more susceptible to viruses like the west nile virus. As George Daley, Dean of the Harvard Medical School says “the experiment done in China was a failure — not just ethically, but scientifically”.

This failure in ethics can be seen in many aspects of his experiment. The most flagrant violation was showing volunteers a faked ethics review certificate, which is a serious violation of experimental ethics owing to the fact that potential volunteers were convinced to participate under false pretenses. Another serious violation was the use of HIV positive people in reproductive experiments, achieved by faking their blood tests, which are illegal to use in assisted reproduction. Such violations cast doubt on China’s legal consequences of genetic experimentation, as three years seem light for what he has done.

Genetic experimentation has already been done on other people. But these are done by ethical institutions, and were performed only on terminal patients. This is important, as modifying reproductively viable patients has the potential to cause genetic problems that could spread over time to affect large portions of the populace. Therefore, scientists must be careful and have a large amount of information about how changing a gene will affect future generations. Such information does not exist at this point in time, so it is irresponsible to make such changes.

Preventing such tampering in the future is difficult to manage. This form of experimentation was not allowed in China, but the experiments happened anyway. Implementing stricter punishments in China will only move where the research is done somewhere else. Likely, the hard part for rogue scientists is securing materials to do these procedures, so limiting access to them is one way to do this. International efforts working with countries to improve their genetic procedures’ safeguards may be effective in limiting genetic tampering. No clear solution seems present, and we can only wait for the next genetic experimenter to be found.