Houston Matters

Rice Investigates Professor Involved In Controversial Gene Editing Research

A Chinese researcher claims he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies.

He Jiankui speaks during an interview at a laboratory in Shenzhen

Rice University is investigating reports that one of their professors assisted in a project that used a new gene-editing technique to make genetically edited human babies.

On Monday, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in China announced he had used human embryos modified with a particular gene-editing technique to create twin girls. The children’s father is HIV-positive, and He says his team altered the DNA of the twin girls to protect them from HIV. 

Dr. Michael Deem, a professor of bioengineering at Rice, was also involved in the work, the Associated Press reported.

“Rice had no knowledge of this work. To Rice’s knowledge, none of the clinical work was performed in the United States,” the university said in a statement sent to Houston Matters. “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. We have begun a full investigation of Dr. Deem’s involvement in this research.”

Gene editing rewrites DNA, and has only recently been tested in adults to treat serious diseases. However, editing eggs, sperm or embryos is different because it makes permanent changes that can pass to future generations, and the risks are still unknown.

While there is no current international regulation regarding gene editing, it has been banned in the U.S.

The Ethical Dilemma

Since He’s research hasn’t been published in a scientific journal or vetted by other scientists, many in the scientific community responded with shock and anger to He’s claim. 

Dr. Janet Malek, associate professor of medicine and medical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, told Houston Matters she believes one of the main reasons the medical community is upset about the announcement is that the safety and efficacy of gene editing hasn’t been proven yet.

“The technology that they’re using is not yet developed enough to be able to reliably edit genes in the way that we would like them to,” Malek said. “So there’s that scientific barrier that really hasn’t been reached yet to a point that we would feel comfortable using it in human embryos that we intend to bring into being as people.”

There could also be unforeseen consequences of gene editing, Rebecca Lunstroth, medical ethicist and associate director for the McGovern Center for Humanities & Ethics at UT Health, told Houston Matters.

“For example, a terrible genetic disease is sickle cell anemia, but sickle cell is also protective for malaria,” Lunstroth said. “What we don’t know is if we start playing around with these genes, while we are solving one problem, we could be causing many others that we don’t know yet.”

Beyond the need for further research, the concept of gene editing also raises ethical concerns.

“The ethical issues are really what disease do we tackle, or which diseases, and then the fear is that we get into enhancement,” Lunstroth said. “It’s one thing to eradicate a disease, it’s another thing to enhance our offspring, and who makes that decision?”

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