Rice University said Monday that it had opened a “full investigation” into the involvement of one of its faculty members in a study that purportedly resulted in the creation of the world’s first babies born with edited DNA.
Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor at Rice, told the Associated Press in a story published Sunday that he helped work on the research in China.
The research was led by He Jiankui, a Shenzhen-based scientist who claims to have helped deliver a set of twin girls whose genomes were edited while they were embryos. Deem served as He’s adviser when He was a graduate student at Rice.
Outside scientists have not yet verified He’s claims, and the research has not been published in a journal. But many scientists and ethicists expressed outrage at the reports that girls with edited DNA had been born.
Editing the genomes of embryos is controversial because the changes would be passed on to future generations. Such research is illegal in the United States. Even researchers who support one day editing embryonic DNA to prevent diseases faulted He’s project for lacking proper safeguards and transparency.
In its statement, Rice said it was not aware of the research ahead of time and that “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.”
Deem did not immediately return a request for comment.
In the embryos, He used the genome-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to disable a gene called CCR5, which produces a receptor that allows HIV to enter cells. People without functional CCR5 genes are immune from HIV infections. The girl’s father had HIV and wanted to avoid passing the virus on to his children, He told the AP, which first reported the twins had been born.
Deem told the AP that he was in China when participants in the study consented to join the research. Deem also said that he had “a small stake” in and is on the scientific advisory boards of He’s two companies.