He studied in the United States before creating a laboratory at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, a city in the province of Guangdong which borders Hong Kong.
It wasn't clear if the three-year prison term includes any of the time he has already spent in Chinese custody.
The Shenzhen Nanshan District People's Court on Monday convicted and sentenced researcher He Jiankui and two collaborators, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, for carrying out human embryo gene-editing and reproductive medical activities.
He received the more stringent sentence of the trio: three years in prison and a fine of 3 million yuan (US$430,000). Two others, along with He, have also been fined and sentenced, but lesser than He.
He was sentenced to three years in prison and fined three million yuan (£330,000).
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He sent shockwaves through the scientific community past year when he announced at a conference in Hong Kong that he had genetically edited human embryos that resulted in the birth of twin baby girls - the world's first gene-edited humans. Among the top concerns outraged scientists expressed when He revealed that he had genetically modified the children was the fact that CRISPR has yet to be developed into a sophisticated enough technology that someone using it could have complete certainty they are only editing one gene. Its objective was also questionable: it eliminated the CCR5 gene, which HIV uses to enter cells but has additional immune functions that are not fully understood. All three pleaded guilty to the charges, reports The Associated Press. "They implanted genetically-engineered embryos into the women's body and impregnated two of them, who gave birth to three babies", Xinhua reported. Editing the human genome with the intention of producing living, breathing people is regarded as irresponsible by most of the medical community when there is still so much we don't know about the possible side effects.
The court held 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", Xinhua said.
Earlier this month, MIT Technology Review published excerpts of He's paper explaining his research, saying that "he ignored ethical and scientific norms" in his work. CRISPR / Cas9 is a technology that can "cut and paste" genes, allowing the removal and replacement of DNA sections.