University probes scientist who worked with researcher on gene-editing babies

Rice University has opened an investigation into one of its professors who reportedly helped make the world’s first genetically-edited babies, a claim that has sparked an international controversy over science and ethics. Dr. Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor at the university, said he helped a Chinese researcher with the gene-editing, which is banned in the United States.

“This research raises troubling scientific, legal and ethical questions,” the university said in a statement, adding that it had no knowledge of Deem’s work. It said none of the clinical work was performed in the U.S.

“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,” it said. 

The researcher, He Jiankui, studied at Rice and Stanford before returning to his homeland to open a lab at Southern University of Science and Technology of China in Shenzhen, where he also has two genetics companies.

The university said He’s work “seriously violated academic ethics and standards” and planned to investigate. A spokesman for He confirmed that he has been on leave from teaching since early this year, but he remains on the faculty and has a lab at the school. His claims have not been independently verified and were not published in a medical journal, where they could be vetted by experts.

Dr. David Agus, an oncologist who leads the USC Westside Cancer Center, explained the doctor’s procedure on “CBS This Morning.” 

After creating an embryo via in vitro fertilization, the doctor used the gene-editing tool CRISPR (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to surgically change one out of 3 billion letters of the embryo’s DNA code, in order to build in a resistance to HIV infection. “He changed the code for the HIV receptor, for the AIDS receptor, into the cell and then that embryo was put into a woman,” Agus said. 

The process is being promoted as a means to eliminate the threat of HIV.

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