Science Policy Around the Web January 7th, 2020

Originally published at sciencepolicyforall.wordpress.com

What CRISPR-Baby Prison Sentences Mean for Research

Chinese scientist He Jiankui came to prominence last year after claiming he had used CRISPR/Cas9 to genetically edit human embryos to confer resistance to HIV-1. Twin girls with the mutation were born in October of 2018, and He’s work was confirmed by Chinese investigators in February of 2019.

Now, after a trial held in secret, He has been sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice” by a Chinese court. Two of He’s colleagues were also charged and given shorter prison sentences. All three were leveled fines, and will be prevented from conducting research using human reproductive technology.

These actions set an important precedent for regulation of human gene editing, however Chinese scientists also worry that they may result in restrictions for research into genetic modification that is not as ethically dubious. They worry that it may become difficult to get approval to use gene editing tools in clinical trials, as well as making funding for these sorts of research experiments more difficult to get. 

Despite these worries, He’s imprisonment is supported by the scientific community, and represents the first big check on clinical gene editing research. Others outside of the mainstream scientific community disagree. In an Op-Ed published by Stat News, Biohacker Josiah Zayner states that as gene-editing of human embryos becomes more common, the perspective on Jiankui will shift and he will no longer be seen as having done anything wrong. 

(David Cyranoski, Scientific American)

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