Stanford Clears Faculty Members Linked to Unethical CRISPR Baby Experiment

Students at Stanford University campus in Santa Clara, California.
Image: AP

A Stanford investigation has cleared three prominent faculty members of helping with a controversial gene-editing experiment led by disgraced Chinese geneticist He Jiankui.

The Stanford faculty members under investigation were Matthew Porteus, biophysicist Stephen Quake, and neuroscientist and ethicist William Hurlbut. The purpose of the review was to understand the relationship these men had with He, and to identify any contributions they may have made to an experiment in which the Chinese scientist created the world’s first genetically modified babies.

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Using the CRISPR gene-editing tool, He claimed to have produced twin girls with a built-in immunity to HIV. The experiment was met with outrage given the premature state of the technology and the clandestine nature of He’s experiment. Investigators in China accused He of violating government bans, committing fraud (such as faking ethical review certificates), and acting in a manner to pursue “fame and gain.”

He Jiankui speaking in Hong Kong last year.
Image: AP

The link to Stanford goes back to 2011, when He worked at the university as a postdoctoral scholar, according to STAT. The geneticist maintained a correspondence with the three faculty members during the course of the experiment, leading to concerns of impropriety.

The recently concluded fact-finding review was conducted by a Stanford faculty member and an outside investigator, according to a press release. The investigation found no evidence of misconduct, clearing the three faculty members of any wrongdoing. As the Stanford press release notes, the reviewers found that:

the Stanford researchers were not participants in Dr. He’s research regarding genome editing of human embryos for intended implantation and birth and that they had no research, financial or organizational ties to this research. The review found that the Stanford researchers expressed serious concerns to Dr. He about his work. When Dr. He did not heed their recommendations and proceeded, Stanford researchers urged him to follow proper scientific practices, which included identifying an unmet medical need, securing informed consent, obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval and publishing the research in a peer-reviewed journal. Finally, the reviewers found that Stanford researchers were told by Dr. He that he had secured IRB approvals for his work.

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With Porteus, Quake, and Hurlbut cleared, that means Stanford is also off the hook. Had the faculty members been accused of misconduct, the university itself would’ve been open to criticism and potential liability. It’s thus a happy conclusion for a university that, as its press releases stated, “is committed to following ethical practices when providing medical treatments and conducting medical research.”

Not entirely satisfied with this outcome, Stanford ethicist and legal expert Hank Greely expressed some concerns via Twitter.

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“I don’t think they did anything wrong,” he said in a tweet, “but I do wish each had done something more but more that science had established a framework to encourage them to do so.”

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Indeed, the incident highlights the obligations that scientists have when they see questionable conduct or are alerted to dangerous, unethical research. As NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan told Gizmodo in January, research scientists “have a duty to report unethical conduct.”

[Stanford, STAT, New York Times]

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About the author

George Dvorsky

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.