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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.'

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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
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