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Stanford to investigate faculty members’ ties with Chinese scientist amid gene-editing controversy

Former Stanford postdoc’s connections with Stanford researchers prompts University review

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Stanford has launched a review into several faculty members’ ties to He Jiankui, a former postdoctoral fellow who claimed in November that he had successfully edited the embryos of twin girls to make them HIV-resistant using a gene-editing tool called CRISPR. He’s work has since been condemned by the Chinese government for violating state regulations.

“We routinely look into concerns that are brought to our attention involving Stanford, and we have a review under way of the circumstances around Dr. He’s interactions with researchers at the university,” wrote Stanford spokesperson EJ Miranda in an email to The Daily.

Miranda did not elaborate further, writing that he has “no additional information” on the investigation.

The faculty members in question include bioethics professor William Hurlbut ’68 M.D. ’74., pediatrics professor Matthew Porteus M.D. ’94 Ph.D. ’94 and bioengineering and applied physics professor Stephen Quake, all of whom He visited multiple times over the years. 

According to the MIT Technology Review, the investigation will be conducted by a third party. Miranda did not respond to The Daily’s inquiry regarding the identity of this third party.

It is not yet clear what the University hopes to find or what consequences it may deliver on those involved, though MIT Technology Review speculated that Stanford’s federal research grants could be endangered if there are serious violations of protocols regarding research conducted with human subjects.

Quake, He Jiankui’s advisor while He was completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford from 2011-12, also said he was not involved. He told the Associated Press that he did not oversee a study involving gene-editing babies. Quake did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

Last December, Hurlbut also told The Daily that he had no knowledge of the ultimate direction of He’s research, nor did he contribute to the experiments.

“It’s reasonable for the university to want to understand how its faculty are related to an event of such global controversy and importance,” Hurlbut said in an interview with The Daily on Thursday. “But just because there’s an inquiry doesn’t mean that anybody’s guilty of any misconduct.”

Hurlbut added that “some of the news sources seem to have missed that point in the way they’ve reported [the issue],” referring to the several news sources — including Gizmodo and Futurism — that have already begun to assign guilt to the three researchers, despite their lack of direct involvement and repeated attempts to speak to He about curbing his experiments. 

Following He’s public announcement, which was hastily put together in an unplanned presentation at the second International Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong, He Jiankui received sharp criticism. His experiments drew international outcry over the ethics of using CRISPR for germline editing.

He was thought to have kept his experiments secret — even China’s Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), where He worked as a faculty member, claims to have no knowledge of his experiments. SUSTech called his human gene-editing experiments a serious violation of its academic ethics and codes of conduct.

But it soon became clear that He had at least been in contact with researchers and professors, whose involvement ranged from as little as suspicions in its early stage to explicit knowledge of He’s plans to gene-edit twin girls by the name of Lulu and Nana in the embryonic stage. None of these individuals brought He’s research to public attention.

Porteus, whose lab at Stanford uses genome editing to find curative therapies for genetic diseases in children, was informed of He’s intent to implant modified embryos in humans in February 2018, nine months before He announced his experiment’s success in November. Porteus told Xconomy that he was “blindsided.”

“I told him he was putting the entire field at risk through his reckless actions,” Porteus said.

Porteus did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

Stanford joins Rice University in investigating the involvement of its faculty in He’s research. He listed Rice University biophysicist Michael Deem as an author on the unpublished paper submitted to Nature, which detailed gene-editing of babies. Deem allegedly helped recruit volunteers for the clinical trial, but Deem’s lawyer has denied the Rice professor ever doing “human research.” Rice began a “full investigation” on Deem’s involvement in late November 2018.

Nobel prize winner Craig Mello was also informed by He of the “genome-editing success” and confirmed pregnancy via email in April 2018. Despite admonishing He’s Jiankui’s work and writing that he would “rather not be kept in the loop,” Craig kept his position as scientific adviser for He’s Direct Genomics company until after the public announcement eight months later.

The researchers and professors who had knowledge of He’s work are receiving backlash for not blowing the whistle on what many believe to be unethical and irresponsible work. Porteus expressed disappointment over the issue in a November 2018 interview.

“It would be irresponsible if the scientific community didn’t look internally and ask: Were there things we could have done differently in the past?” Porteus told Xconomy. “I consider this to be a failure because it shouldn’t have happened.”

Hurlbut told The Daily in December 2018 that he did not believe anyone could have changed He’s mind, noting that both he and Porteus were “very critical” and made repeated attempts to help him understand the ethical implications of human gene-editing. Yet, He continued to be naive about the public reaction to his work.

Jennifer Doudna, co-inventor of CRISPR gene-editing technology, supported this characterization of He Jiankui in a bioethics lecture given at Stanford on Jan. 25.

“He thought that he would be awarded prizes for his work, but in reality the reaction was quite the opposite,” Doudna said.

In that same lecture, Doudna highlighted the dangers of the technology’s low barrier to entry. Researchers can order the materials needed for CRISPR experimentation by buying a $65 starter kit online.

To this end, Stanford researchers have used the precision and accessibility of CRISPR tools to make advancements towards cures and treatments for inherited diseases such as sickle-cell disease, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, Tay-Sachs and muscular dystrophy. However, their work focuses on diseases caused by a single defective gene and consists of altering only somatic cells that are not involved in reproduction.

He’s work is a foray into human germline engineering, in which the genome is edited and the changes are heritable by future generations — the point at which scientists believe CRISPR can turn from something revolutionary to a technology with great potential for risk.

 

Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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