scientist arrested for genetically modifying babies
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
January 3, 2020 ·  4 min read

Scientist arrested for genetically editing babies

Researcher He Jiankui, 35, was sentenced to three years in prison for conducting “illegal medical practices” after he announced that he had genetically edited babies. The court in Shenzhen, China, found the doctor guilty of forging approval documents from ethics review boards in order to manipulate couples, where the man had HIV and his partner did not, into joining his project. He claimed that he was attempting to prevent HIV in newborn babies.

A Horrifying Announcement

At a scientific conference in Hong Kong, Dr. He announced his successful attempt at genetically editing a pair of twin girls. Those attending the conference were horrified, and later they found out that he had an undisclosed genetically altered third baby. [1]

Dr. He said he used in vitro fertilization to make human embryos resistant to HIV using the Crispr-Cas9 editing technique, which disables the gene that creates the protein the virus needs to enter the body. This kind of work is banned in many countries, including the United States, because it could be misused to create “designer babies” by altering the embryos’ IQ, eye color, etc. 

China’s laws do not ban gene editing, but it is morally opposed by many lead researchers there and they called for government prohibitions on such practices. China’s vice minister of science and technology called He’s project “shocking and unacceptable” and suspended his research. A group of over 120 scientists in China declared He’s project “crazy” and “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”

The conference’s uproar was probably not what the doctor had expected in regard to his experiments, but he did plead guilty and was fined $430,000. He was not alone in his prison sentence since he had two fellow conspirators, Zhang Renli, who was given two years in prison and a one million yuan fine, and Qin Jinzhou, who got 18 months in prison with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan fine. [2]

The court stated that the defendants, “in the pursuit of fame and profit, deliberately violated the relevant national regulations on scientific and medical research and crossed the bottom line on scientific and medical ethics.”

The Aftermath of the Genetically Edited Babies Experiment

Dr. He is now a scientific pariah, and this status negatively affects other professionals with any connection to him, as well as China’s ambitions with human genetic mutations. Incidentally, He didn’t show any definite proof to his claims but his colleagues admit it’s very possible he had succeeded in his project. 

“I think a jail sentence is the proper punishment for him,” says Wang Yuedan, a professor of immunology at Peking University, who was among those appalled by He’s actions. “It makes clear our stance on the gene editing of humans — that we are opposed to it.

“This is a warning effect, signaling that there is a bottom line that cannot be broken.” [3]

One man infected with HIV came forward claiming to have been unsuccessfully recruited by He’s team. The man stated that he was not warned of the ethical concerns of genetic editing, that He had told him his probability of having an unhealthy baby was low, and that the team achieved great results in animal tests.

There were American scientists aware of Dr. He’s plans and they are now under scrutiny, namely Dr. Stephen Quake, He’s previous academic advisor, a renown Stanford bioengineer and inventor, yet Quake’s name was cleared. Michael Deem, Dr. He’s Ph.D. adviser, is also being investigated by Rice Academy to determine his involvement in the experiment. While Deem admits he was present for part of the research but was not actively involved, Quake denies all association with the work.

“Everyone lost in this…”

Despite all of the backlash, He continues to be unapologetic, saying his actions were safe and ethical. He is proud of what he has accomplished.

Unlike He, Bai Hua, head of Baihualin, an AIDS advocacy group, is regretful of his part in the project, for he had helped recruit the couples. He is now very concerned about the families. Using a pen name, Bai made a statement where he admits to feeling “deceived.” When contacted for further information, Bai said he doesn’t know where the babies are and refused to say whether he was assisting the investigation.

His trial was closed to protect the privacy of the families involved, but he potentially faced a maximum penalty of ten years in prison if it was found that his experiments caused one of the babies to die. This, fortunately, did not occur, which gave him a lesser sentence of three years.

William Hurlbut, a scientist and bioethicist at Stanford who had tried to convince He not to do the experiment, called his arrest a “sad story.

Everyone lost in this (He, his family, his colleagues, and his country), but the one gain is that the world is awakened to the seriousness of our advancing genetic technologies,” Hurlbut said in a statement. “I feel sorry for [He’s] little family though — I warned him things could end this way, but it was just too late.[4]


  1. CBS News. Chinese doctor who touted world’s first gene-edited babies sentenced to 3 years in prison. December 30, 2019
  2. Dennis Normile. Chinese scientist who produced genetically altered babies sentenced to 3 years in jail. Science Mag. December 30, 2019
  3. Sui-Lee Wee. Chinese Scientist Who Genetically Edited Babies Gets 3 Years in Prison. The New York Times. December 30, 2019
  4. Merrit Kennedy. Chinese Researcher Who Created Gene-Edited Babies Sentenced To 3 Years In Prison. NPR. December 30, 2019