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Stanford investigates staff who allegedly knew about genome-edited babies

11 February 2019
Appeared in BioNews 986

Stanford University in California is reviewing staff interactions with Dr He Jiankui, as it emerges that he was in contact with academics at multiple institutions.

The university launched its investigation after media reports that some of its faculty members were aware of Dr He's plans to produce genome-edited babies, according to MIT Technology Review. Professor Stephen Quake, Dr William Hurlbut and Dr Matthew Porteus have all been open about being in contact with Dr He over the last year.

'We have a review underway of the circumstances around Dr He's interactions with researchers at the university,' confirmed Stanford spokesperson Ernest Miranda.

Dr He's announcement in November 2018 that two girls had been born from embryos that had been edited to confer resistance to HIV surprised many (see BioNews 977), but it seems that a number of researchers were aware of his plans.

Professor Quake was Dr He's postdoctoral adviser in bioengineering from 2011-2012, and said they only discussed the subject in broad, general terms. Both Dr Hurlburt and Dr Porteus have said they voiced their disapproval when Dr He told them of his plans and tried to dissuade him.

'I knew where he was heading and tried to give him a sense of the practical and ethical implications,' said bioethicist Dr Hurlburt in a November interview with STAT. 'He didn’t reveal to me what the state of his research was, though I suspected he had either pregnancies or born babies.'

Dr Porteus, a researcher and clinician specialising in paediatric stem cell transplants, met with Dr He early in 2018, and although he knew Dr He was trying to establish pregnancies, he agreed to 'respect confidentiality'. 

News of the Stanford review is the latest story suggesting that a number of US academics knew what Dr He was doing. It was previously revealed that Professor Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts was aware of Dr He's work, and was told that a pregnancy had resulted in April 2018. Nobel Laureate Professor Mello expressed his disapproval in emails to Dr He but did not resign as scientific adviser for Dr He's company until after the birth.

Professor Michael Deem, who was Dr He's PhD adviser is also being investigated by his employer Rice University in Houston, Texas. Some press coverage indicated Professor Deem was involved in Dr He's research and was a named author on Dr He's paper about the twins submitted to Nature, but Professor Deem's lawyers David Gerger and Matt Hennessy refuted the suggestion a statement in December: 'Michael does not do human research and he did not do human research on this project.'

Stanford Is Reviewing Faculty Links to Chinese Scientist Who Claims He Made Gene-Edited Babies
Time magazine |  7 February 2019
Stanford to Investigate Links Between Faculty and Rogue Chinese Scientist
GIZMODO |  7 February 2019
Stanford will investigate its role in the Chinese CRISPR baby debacle
MIT Review |  7 February 2019
25 February 2019 - by Isobel Steer 
A gene called CCR5 has been shown to affect people's ability to recover after stroke. It is the same gene at the heart of the recent controversial case of genome edited babies in China...
18 February 2019 - by Dr Sam Sherratt 
The World Health Organization is convening an 18-member committee of scientific experts from around the globe next month with the goal of developing international standards for the oversight of human genome editing...
28 January 2019 - by Charlotte Spicer 
A second pregnancy established with a genome-edited embryo is ongoing, Chinese authorities have confirmed...
14 January 2019 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
Chinese scientist Dr He Jiankui, who claimed to have created the world's first genome-edited babies is said to be alive and well, and under guard at home...
10 December 2018 - by Jen Willows 
The World Health Organisation will establish a panel of experts to study the potential uses of genome editing in humans, and to formulate guidelines for use of the technology...
26 November 2018 - by Shaoni Bhattacharya 
The first births from genome-edited human embryos have been announced by a Chinese researcher amid widespread condemnation, and fears over safety...
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