Rice University launched an investigation this week into one of its professors who claimed he assisted Chinese researcher He Jiankui in creating the world’s first genetically altered babies.
Breitbart News reported He claimed to genetically modify the DNA of two twin girls born this month to prevent the possibility of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, through the use of CRISPR-Cas9, a technique that allows scientists to remove and replace a strand of DNA with pinpoint accuracy.
Michael Deem is the Rice University physics and bioengineering professor under investigation for his purported role in He’s controversial gene editing project. Previously, Deem served as a faculty adviser to He, who completed his doctorate in biophysics at the Houston-based private university in 2010. The pair co-authored several white papers, according to the university’s website.
This week, Deem told the Associated Press he helped He with the DNA modification, a procedure which is banned in the United States. Deem said he worked in He’s laboratory at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen. The professor also divulged he has a “small stake” in and sits on the scientific advisory boards of He’s two companies in Shenzhen.
According to AP, Deem was present in China “when participants gave their consent and said that he ‘absolutely’ thinks they were able to understand the risks” of the experimental procedure. The professor also told the news agency he collaborated with He on vaccine research at Rice.
Still, many of the details about Deem’s involvement in the genetic “work” remain unclear. Reportedly, the professor has not responded to subsequent media inquiries.
Rice University officials said they had “no knowledge of the work.” They opened a “full investigation” into Deem’s involvement in research they characterized as raising “troubling, scientific, legal, and ethical questions,” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“To Rice’s knowledge, none of the clinical work was performed in the U.S,” said the university in a prepared statement. “Regardless of where it was conducted, this work, as described in press reports, violates scientific-conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University.”
Research that modifies DNA is illegal in the U.S. over concerns that genetic alteration could be passed down to future generations, according to STAT, the health-oriented online news source.
China’s National Health Commission said it would “pay close attention to reports of the experiment” and vowed to “seriously investigate and verify” the veracity of the alleged infant DNA modification, as was reported by Breitbart News.
No independent scientist has confirmed He’s claim and the gene alteration experimentation has not been published in a journal, said STAT. Innumerable scientists and ethicists voiced outrage over the news of the DNA editing, including 120 Chinese scientists who signed a joint statement condemning gene modification, calling it “madness.”
Others like Harvard University’s famed geneticist George Church defended altering DNA to prevent HIV which he called “a major and growing public health threat.”
Conversely, Baylor ethicist Chris Scott told AP it was “only a matter of time before we saw a story like this.” Scott, associate director of health policy at Baylor’s Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, underscored one of his concerns was the news of this “event” may cause other rogue scientists to perform the procedure.