Rice Ph.D graduate known as ‘CRISPR Baby’ scientist sentenced to three years in prison – The Rice Thresher

Posted: January 15, 2020 at 1:46 pm

Infographic by Dan Helmici

By Riley Holmes 1/14/20 11:43pm

A Chinese court sentenced He Jiankui (Ph.D. 10), who revealed that he had genetically-edited twin girls last year, to three years in prison on Dec. 30, 2019. The questions surrounding his PhD advisor, Rice University bioengineering professor Michael Deems involvement in the Hes experiments, remain unanswered. In November 2018, Rice began a full investigation into Deems role in the research.

According to the New York Times, He plead guilty to forging documentation from ethics committees approving the study, which he used to recruit participants. Additionally, Chinese media outlets revealed his work on a previously undisclosed third child.

Since Rices Nov. 2018 statement, no more public updates on the internal investigation of Deem have been given. The Office of Public Affairs declined to comment for this article.

In the original statement, Rice stated they had been unaware of the project.

This work as described in press reports violates scientific conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University, the statement read.

Meanwhile, Stanford Universitys investigation cleared three researchers associated with He in Spring 2019 after concluding they did not encourage or directly participate in the project, according to the New York Times coverage.

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Dr. Christopher Scott, Chair of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine, studies ethical, legal, social and policy implications of biotechnologies similar to the ones He used. Scott formerly taught a required research ethics course to NIH grant recipients, and also mentioned that he discussed Hes project with an ethics class at Rice last fall.

The thing that is troubling about the China case is that its not a China ethics problem, it is an international problem, Scott said. So, the question from an ethics point of view is what are the professional and ethical obligations of those folks, who have either direct knowledge of intent or knowledge that the experiment was conducted, to report this fellow?

A Chinese scientist associated with the project claimed Deem was more than just a bystander, according to an article posted on STAT news in Jan. 2019. The studys manuscript lists Deem as an author. After He announced his work at a conference in Hong Kong in Nov. 2018, Deem told the Associated Press he had met the twins parents. According to the Houston Chronicle, however, he attempted to remove his name from the paper after it was sent to journals such as Nature. The study was ultimately rejected and never published. Deem had served as Hes advisor when he completed his PhD at Rice between 2007 and 2010.

Deem did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication. Two other bioengineering faculty members also declined to comment.

According to Scott, another issue arises with the language of the consent paperwork which described the gene-therapy experiment as a vaccination against H.I.V. The Thresher was not able to obtain a copy of the consent paperwork referenced by Scott.

When it comes to genetic editing, Scott said the unknowns and risks of these experiments differ from administering a new drug to a patient or implanting a heart device.

These are genetic effects that are felt, carried for life, and also carried in heritable ways to generations, Scott said, There has to be a commitment to understanding these sorts of things, how you follow these genetically-edited kids through adulthood, and later their children, and their childrens children - a lot of unknowns.

Two other Chinese scientists connected to Hes work were also given prison sentences, according to coverage by the New York Times. If the project had resulted in a participants death, Hes sentence might have exceeded 10 years, according to the Times.

Even though this was an uncomfortable and unfortunate event, it's really one of those teaching moments, Scott said You have to ask the question institutionally, what can be done to up the level of ethical foresight in teaching universities and research universities? That's a hard question to answer.

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Rice Ph.D graduate known as 'CRISPR Baby' scientist sentenced to three years in prison - The Rice Thresher

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