Rice professor under investigation for role in 'world's first gene-edited babies'

Rice University is investigating bioengineering professor Michael Deem after he was quoted in media reports ...

Posted: Nov 28, 2018 3:09 PM
Updated: Nov 28, 2018 3:09 PM

Rice University is investigating bioengineering professor Michael Deem after he was quoted in media reports as having been involved with the work of He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who claims to have created the world's first gene-edited babies.

Deem was He's adviser at Rice for 3½ years and published three papers with He.

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"This research raises troubling scientific, legal and ethical questions," said Doug Miller, director of Rice University's media relations team. In a statement, Miller said Rice had "no knowledge of this work."

"We have begun a full investigation of Dr. Deem's involvement in this research."

He claims that he used a tool called CRISPR-Cas9, which can insert or deactivate certain genes, to alter the CCR5 gene in the DNA of several embryos to make them resistant to HIV.

Two babies, twin girls named Lulu and Nana, were supposedly born a "few weeks ago," He announced in a video on YouTube, saying they were "as healthy as any other babies" and were home with their parents, Grace and Mark.

He defended his his work Wednesday at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing conference in Hong Kong and announced that there was a second pregnancy using genetically edited eggs, which he said was in an early stage.

Worldwide reaction to He's Sunday announcement was swift. Hundreds of Chinese biomedical and AIDS researchers issued statements condemning the research. Several scientists said the experiment was "monstrous," "premature, dangerous and irresponsible." The Chinese government announced an "immediate investigation" to verify He's claims, questioning the ethical approval process and wondering whether the families were adequately informed of the nature of the experiment.

Deem has not responded to CNN's calls and emails but told The Associated Press that he was in China with the families at the time they gave consent and "absolutely" believed they understood the risks.

Deem also said he holds "a small stake" and is on the scientific advisory board of two of He's companies.

Rice University said it did not believe that any of the clinical work was performed in the United States, but "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."

While at Rice, Deem has worked extensively on influenza vaccine efficacy, immune system modulation and HIV. Deem also says a research interest is the "mathematical model of evolution that accounts for cross-species genetic exchange."

A recent paper by Deem on math modeling for flu was co-written by biomedical ethics researcher Kirstin Matthews at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Matthews wrote in an email that she was surprised "to find out that Professor Deem was involved in this research." Adding that she had only recently began working with Deem, she said she had not "seen anything to suggest that Professor Deem's scientific work is in question," nor did she believe any data in co-authored paper was affected.

"Had Professor Deem informed me of his work using CRISPR on human embryos to develop a baby, I would have recommended extreme caution using this technology on human embryos and to wait for more data on risks before using manipulated embryos for pregnancies," Matthews wrote.

Deem's past work has been funded by various governmental agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, but spokeswoman Renate Myles said Deem has not received a grant from that agency since 2014.

In a statement Wednesday, Director Dr. Francis Collins reiterated the agency's stance against gene-editing in human embryos and expressed deep concern over He's behavior:

"This work represents a deeply disturbing willingness by Dr. He and his team to flaunt international ethical norms. The project was largely carried out in secret, the medical necessity for inactivation of CCR5 in these infants is utterly unconvincing, the informed consent process appears highly questionable, and the possibility of damaging off-target effects has not been satisfactorily explored.

"Should such epic scientific misadventures proceed, a technology with enormous promise for prevention and treatment of disease will be overshadowed by justifiable public outrage, fear, and disgust."

According to a news release on the Rice University website, He became a graduate student under Deem in 2007 and co-wrote several papers "of tremendous significance" with Deem.

He, who the university says was "the son of rice farmers in Hunan Province in China," was lead author with Deem on a paper presenting a mathematical model that could determine within two weeks whether a new strain of the influenza virus should be included in the annual seasonal flu vaccine. The World Health Organization's model takes up to six months.

"Jiankui is a very high-impact student," Deem said in 2010. "He has done a fantastic job here at Rice, and I am sure he will be highly successful in his career."

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