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Chinese Scientist He Jiankui Sentenced To 3 Years In Prison For Editing Human Genes

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A Chinese scientist who claims to have created the world's first gene-edited babies has been sentenced to three years in prison. That is according to an announcement today from China's official news agency, Xinhua. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with more.

Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, there.

CHANG: Can you just remind us - who is this scientist? And what exactly did he claim he did?

STEIN: Yeah, his name is He Jiankui. He's 35, and he was based at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. You might remember he shocked the world about a year ago when he announced he had created twin girls from embryos whose DNA he had edited in the lab...

CHANG: Yeah.

STEIN: ...Using the powerful gene-editing technique called CRISPR. He said he did it to try to protect them from getting infected with the AIDS virus. But his claim sparked outrage around the world for a couple reasons. The first one was, no one knows if this sort of thing would be safe for any kids produced this way. And it also raises big concerns about opening the door for so-called designer babies.

CHANG: Right. OK. So what exactly happened today? What did the Chinese government do?

STEIN: Right. So as you mentioned, China's news agency announced that He and two of his colleagues had been put on trial and had pleaded guilty to a variety of things, including conspiring to forge ethical review documents to deceive authorities about their - what they called illegal medical practices. It also said they had rashly done what they did for personal profit.

And He, who's also known as J.K. - he was sentenced to three years in prison and fined the equivalent of about $430,000. And two of his colleagues who work with him also received lesser sentences and smaller fines. And the announcement also revealed for the first time that a third baby who had - scientists had created this way had already been born to another woman.

CHANG: So I mean, I remember when He announced what he did, there were a lot of people in the scientific community who were outraged. And a lot of people want to see him face consequences. But was prison what they had in mind?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, I've been in touch with a number of scientists and bioethicists today in several different countries. And they're all pretty much saying the same thing - that they hoped this would act as a powerful deterrent to anyone else trying this sort of thing again. And one bioethicist who's advising the World Health Organization about how to regulate this technology says the sentence does seem pretty much in line with what would happen in other countries if other scientists...

CHANG: Really?

STEIN: ...Did the same sort of thing. Yeah. And I also heard from a bioethicist from Stanford who had gotten to know J.K. pretty well and had even warned him against doing what he did. And he said he felt sorry for him and his family. You know, J.K - he's married and has two young children. But he, too, hoped the case would be kind of a wake-up call about the potential dangers of the latest genetic technologies.

CHANG: So is anything being done in the larger scientific community to try to prevent this kind of thing from happening again?

STEIN: Yeah. So this case - it prompted a huge, a really intense debate that's still underway in the scientific community around the world. And one big issue is that a number of scientists either strongly suspected what He was doing or actually knew what he was doing, and they didn't sound any alarms about it. One researcher at Rice University is still under investigation for possibly - actually being actively involved in this project.

And then at the same time, there are commissions that have been formed - two different commissions who were trying to come up with better ways to police this technology and actually come up with ways that scientists could ethically use these powerful new gene-editing techniques because there's widespread agreement that gene editing - it could provide important new ways to treat many diseases. And it's already showing promise for that. And some scientists think it may even someday be ethical to try to create genetically modified babies to prevent terrible genetic diseases. But others - they argue that's unnecessary and would just open up a Pandora's box, so we should never go there.

But this debate is far from over. In fact, there's a scientist in Russia who says he wants to create more gene-edited babies to try to do things like prevent deafness.

CHANG: Wow. As you say, the debate is far from over. That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.