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expert reaction to news that He Jiankui has been sentenced to three years in prison

He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who last year used CRISPR techniques to alter the genome of embryos, has reportedly been jailed for 3 years by a Chinese court.  


James Lawford Davies, lawyer specializing in regulation of human genome editing, Partner, Hill Dickinson LLP, said:

“He Jiankui’s actions would be against the law in the UK and, if found guilty, such actions would be punishable with a prison sentence of up to two years, a fine, or both.  Although comparable to the sentence imposed on He in China, the criminal process in the UK is otherwise very different, involving transparent and public hearings, resulting in publicly available judgments.”


Julian Hitchcock, lawyer specializing in regulation of human genome editing, at  Bristows LLP, said:

“By common consensus, He Jiankui’s interventions went well beyond what was ethically acceptable.  Whether he had broken a law, and if so which law, was unclear, and these questions became more urgent when he was “vanished”, presumably by the Chinese state.  The lack of transparency about his case (indeed, whether there was one), what the charges were, and the grounds for his detention (indeed, whether he was being detained), set a worrying precedent for the treatment of those Chinese scientists who do behave ethically, but who are out of political favour.  News of the court’s treatment of He Jiankui and his associates therefore appears to be something of a relief: its alleged rationale certainly seems rational, and its sentences seem fair and not unlike those that would apply under UK law.  Nevertheless, the court’s verdict of “guilty of illegal practice” implies a wide margin of discretion by a court that is hardly independent of government, and will not inspire confidence.  The Chinese government should of course publish the court’s full judgment to allay these concerns.”


Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, Group Leader, The Francis Crick Institute, said:

“We had been wondering what had happened to He Jiankui (JK); there has been little if any news on his whereabouts or the progress of any investigation being conducted by the Chinese authorities, or of other details surrounding what he had done, for many months. And this is despite attempts by some western journalists to find out. In that sense alone, the information now released is reassuring. Obviously, I cannot comment on the severity of the sentence, I am not an expert on the Chinese legal system; but both prison and a fine would have been the likely penalties if someone had done what JK did in the UK.

“It would seem appropriate that others were also sentenced by the court; JK could not have carried out all the technical aspects of the work alone and at least someone at the IVF clinic that was involved would be complicit. The teams involved were probably larger than this, but others may not have known the details or they fell under JK’s ‘spell’ – he was very enthusiastic (not necessarily for the right reasons, being driven by a quest for fame and for being the first) and I imagine that he could be quite persuasive. From what was revealed about the consent process, he had obviously managed to persuade the couples involved, such as the parents of Nana and Lulu, to go ahead with the process of genome editing their embryos, when all the evidence would have said that the methods were far from being sufficiently safe and efficient to use. This is still the situation. The choice of CCR5 as the gene to edit, when we do not know enough about its normal role, and the purpose, which was for social rather than clinical reasons, were also very concerning.

“We had also been speculating as to whether or not the ‘third baby’ had been born. We now know this to be the case and I hope he or she is a happy and healthy normal baby – which is how they should be treated. Along with Nana and Lulu, they all deserve privacy. 

“There are still many details of the case that have yet to be released, such as confirmation of the edits made to the CCR5 gene, whether or not there were also off target events (edits made elsewhere in the genome), if there is indeed mosaicism (where not all cells have the same edit or any at all), as suggested in the data presented by JK at the Summit meeting in Hong Kong and released subsequently. And of course, how JK could have proceeded with what he did with so much secrecy. 

“It is far too premature for anyone to attempt clinical application of germline genome editing; indeed, at this stage we do not know if the methods will ever be sufficiently safe and efficient – although the relevant science is progressing rapidly, and new methods can look promising. It is also important to have standards established, including detailed regulatory pathways, and appropriate means of governance. These aspects are being looked at by the Academies’ Commission and by a WHO Committee, both due to report next year (2020). And we still need better and more inclusive dialogue about the all the issues.”


Declared interests

Prof Lovell-Badge is a member of the WHO Committee looking at governance relating to human genome editing and the Academies’ Commission.

None others received


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