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Explained: Who is the Chinese researcher convicted for ‘genetically editing’ babies

In 2018, Dr He made headlines when he claimed to have produced genetically modified babies using gene editing technique CRISPR.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 30, 2019 10:34:27 pm
He Jiankui, chinese doctor who genetically edited babies, gene editing technique CRISPR, chinese doctor convicted for genetically editing babies, indian express, indian express explained, HIV AIDS In this October 2018 photo, He Jiankui is seen working at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province. (AP Photo)

On Monday, a court in China sentenced researcher He Jiankui to prison for three years, with a fine of 3 million yuan (approx Rs 3 crore), for illegal medical practice, Xinhua reported.

In 2018, Dr He made headlines when he claimed to have produced genetically modified babies using gene editing technique CRISPR.

The court in Shenzhen in southern China found that Dr He (age 35), and two others involved in the project, were not qualified to work as doctors, had knowingly violated the country’s regulations and ethical principles, and that their acts were “in the pursuit of personal fame and gain” and had “disrupted medical order.”

Apart from the gene-edited twin girls that were previously known, there had been reports of a third such baby. The verdict confirmed those reports.

What did Dr He do?

Dr He created an international sensation last year with his claim that he had altered the genes of a human embryo that eventually resulted in the birth of twin girls with specific desired attributes — supposedly the first instance of human offspring so produced — using newly-developed tools of gene “editing”.

The genes of the twins were “edited” to ensure they do not get infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to the claims.

Also Read | Chinese doctor steps out to defend his ‘gene-edited babies’

The announcement caused an uproar in the scientific community around the world, including China, with several researchers accusing Dr He of breaching ethical norms.

Although the CRISPR tool has been used on adults to treat diseases, Dr He’s work was criticised for being medically unnecessary.

Also, genetic modification continues to be a subject of major debate. In developing countries like India, genetically modified crops are also a contentious topic. Tampering with the genetic code in human beings is more controversial, as any such change can be passed down to future generations.

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Many scientists, including the co-founder of CRISPR (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) have been calling for a “global pause” on clinical applications of the technology in human beings, till such time as internationally accepted protocols are developed.

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