In November of 2018, a researcher from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzen, China made an admission that shocked scientists all around the world. He Jiankui announced that he and his team had used the CRISPR gene-editing system to modify the DNA in human embryos. Since then, He’s actions have been condemned, and the researcher and two of his colleagues have been subjected to prison sentences. He’s work sought to make the embryos less susceptible to contracting HIV by disrupting a gene that codes for a protein that allows HIV to enter immune cells.
Among the criticism that He received, scientists said that the gene-editing technology was not ready to be used for reproductive purposes. They found the experiment problematic for risking introducing a potentially harmful mutation while offering little benefit. At the time, He faced a number of possible criminal charges, including practicing medicine without the proper qualifications, which can be punishable by up to ten years in prison. Ultimately the People’s Court of Nanshan District Shenzhen fined He 3 million yuan (an equivalent of US$430,000) and sentenced him to 3 years in prison in 2019. His colleagues, who collaborated with him in the experiment, received lesser prison sentences and fines. The researchers were also banned from ever working with human reproductive technology, and the science ministry banned them from applying for research funding.
The consequences of He Jiankui’s actions are far from limited to just him and his colleagues. The prison sentences, as well as the international backlash, will likely deter other researchers from doing the same. He’s controversial experiment and its fallout, including the government’s reaction to it, has instilled fear in Chinese scientists who are currently researching CRISPR. Even though their work is not as ethically fraught since they are modifying cells other than embryos, He’s action may also have a chilling effect on their work.
In the wake of the scandal, researchers called for a ban on gene editing in embryos and germline cells. The consequences of He Jiankui’s experiment sends a strong message to other Chinese researchers working in gene-editing. Lu You, an oncologist from Sichuan University in Chengdu who was the first person to test CRISPR gene-editing in a person adds, “If I was a newcomer, a researcher wishing to start gene-editing research and clinical trials, the case would be enough to alert me to the cost of such violations.”
Wei Wenshang, a gene-editing researcher at Peking University in Beijing, raises another concern: given the international condemnation that followed, it may be difficult to get approval to use gene-editing tools in clinical trials. There is a silver lining to all this, in that the court’s result demonstrates China’s commitment to research ethics. He’s case serves as a cautionary tale regarding responsible research and the ethical use of technology.