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The Chinese Scientist Who Made The First Genetically Engineered Babies Is Going To Prison

The report from China confirms the birth of a third genetically engineered baby in the human experiment that scientists have called both botched and dangerous.

Posted on December 30, 2019, at 11:57 a.m. ET

Anthony Wallace / Getty Images

A Chinese court sentenced biomedical scientist He Jiankui and two accomplices to prison on Monday for “illegal medical practice” for genetically engineering three babies.

In November 2018, He announced the birth of the first two children, twin girls named Lulu and Nana, as well as the pregnancy of a second woman carrying a genetically engineered fetus. The news created a scientific firestorm, with human genetic engineering experiments widely viewed as dangerous and unethical by scientific organizations worldwide. The third baby has now been born, according to reporting from China’s state news agency.

The genetic engineering team fabricated an ethics review of their experiment, according to the Nanshan District People's Court of Shenzhen City ruling. They used the faked permissions to recruit couples living with HIV in hopes of helping them to conceive children genetically engineered to receive a mutation giving them immunity to some forms of the disease.

He, formerly a biomedical scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzen, received a prison sentence of three years and a fine equivalent to $480,000. His associates, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, received jail terms of two years and 18 months with a two-year reprieve, according to the ruling, for practicing medicine without a license and violating Chinese regulations governing assisted reproduction.

“The prison sentence and stiff financial penalty sends a message to other Chinese scientists that unsanctioned efforts at human germline editing will not be tolerated,” University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine researcher Kiran Musunuru told BuzzFeed News, by email. “I expect that it will have a deterrent effect, certainly in China and possibly elsewhere.”

At an October conference, Musunuru had reported that a draft study submitted to a scientific journal about the twins by He’s team suggested that the genetic engineering attempt had badly misfired, targeting the wrong location for the mutation and potentially seeding other mutations throughout the DNA of the children.

Science academies worldwide formed an oversight commission in March, following widespread condemnation of the experiments.

The court ruling found the three sentenced scientists acted "in the pursuit of personal fame and gain" and have seriously "disrupted medical order,” according to Chinese state media.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.