a rooftop and tower at Stanford University
a rooftop and tower at Stanford University

The US Scientists Who Knew About CRISPRed Babies

Multiple researchers were aware of He Jiankui’s clinical trial before the news became public in November.

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Shawna Williams

Shawna joined The Scientist in 2017 and is now a senior editor and news director. She holds a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Colorado College and a graduate certificate and science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Jan 29, 2019

ABOVE: FLICKR, DON MCCULLOUGH

Update (March 18, 2022): STAT reports that “During the clinical trial in 2017 and 2018, [Michael] Deem regularly received data about the research subjects, including sequence data of DNA pulled from the cells of the gene-edited children, according to a source with knowledge of the project,” an assertion Deem denies through his lawyers. The outlet also reports that Rice University conducted an ethics investigation of Deem, who left the institution in the summer of 2020.

Update (February 11, 2019): MIT Technology Review reports that Stanford University is conducting an investigation "to understand what liabilities or risks" it may have in connection with the CRISPR human editing trial.

Update (January 31, 2019): STAT reports that He's former PhD advisor, Michael Deem of Rice University, was listed as the final author on a paper submitted to Nature about the CRISPR gene-editing trial. 

When MIT Technology Review and...

The most recent revelation came yesterday (January 28), when the AP reported that He sent an email to University of Massachussetts professor Craig Mello in April 2018 in which he said a pregnancy had been achieved with the CRISPRed embryos. Although Mello, a Nobel laureate for his work on RNA interference, expressed his disapproval and concern, he stayed on as an advisor to He’s company, Direct Genomics, until December, and did not alert authorities to He’s trial. Nor, it appears, did any among the handful of accomplished scientists who knew of He’s plans. 

Another advisor to He’s companies, physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem of Rice University, had served as He’s PhD advisor and was present when participants gave consent to participate in the study, AP reported in late November.

See “CRISPR Scientists Slam Methods Used on Gene-Edited Babies”

He also forged connections with CRISPR researchers in California; STAT reports that early in 2017, he told Mark DeWitt, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, of his plans to start pregnancies with CRISPRed embryos. DeWitt says he tried to talk He out of doing so. According to The Stanford Daily, CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley received an email from He in early November 2018 with the subject line “Babies Born.” 

At Stanford University, where He did a postdoc, ethicist William Hurlbut, gene therapy researcher Matthew Porteus, and bioengineer Stephen Quake all knew about or suspected He’s plans, AP reported. Porteus told the wire service that he reacted very negatively when He told him in February 2018 that he’d received a hospital’s ethical approval to go ahead with the trial, and that afterward, “I didn’t hear from him and assumed he would not proceed. . . . In retrospect, I could have raised a hue and cry.”

STAT has reported that in his application to the hospital’s ethics committee, He wrote, “The project will stand out in the increasingly intense international competition of gene editing technologies,” according to a translation. “This creative research will be more significant than the IVF technique which won the 2010 Nobel Prize, and bring about the dawn of the cure for numberless genetic diseases.” He’s ambitions appear to be cut short. Not only has he been fired from his academic job, but he may face charges in China for violating regulations.

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