After a Chinese scientist unveiled the first gene-edited babies, a Stanford biotechnology professor Dr. Stephen Quake, facing ethical scrutiny and a university investigation, is denying assisting in the project, The New York Times reported.
“I had nothing to do with this, and I wasn’t involved,” Dr. Quake told the Times about Dr. He Jiankui’s project, providing emails outlining his interactions with his former student. “I hold myself to high ethical standards.”
After a pair of gene-edited twins orchestrated by Dr. He, 35, was revealed, a Chinese government investigation concluded Dr. He had “seriously violated ethics, scientific research integrity and relevant state regulations,” according to the report.
Then, Dr. He’s Chinese university president alleged to Stanford that Dr. Quake participated and was equally at fault for ethical violations.
“Prof. Stephen Quake provided instructions to the preparation and implementation of the experiment, the publication of papers, the promotion and news release, and the strategies to react after the news release,” Dr. He’s Chinese university president alleged in letters obtained by Times. “[Dr. Quake’s actions] violated the internationally recognized academic ethics and codes of conduct, and must be condemned.”
Dr. Quake, 49, provided his email interactions with Dr. He to the Times, showing they emailed over milestones in the project, including date of pregnancy and birth, and Dr. Quake advising Dr. He to seek ethical approval in China.
While Dr. Quake said he advised Dr. He against the project in 2016, the emails from 2017 and 2018 offer encouragement and do not explicitly say to stop, according to the report.
“I said, ‘That’s a terrible idea. Why would you want to do that?'” Dr. Quake told the Times. “He kind of pushed back and it was clear that he wasn’t listening to me.
“I said, ‘All right, if you’re not going to be convinced that I think this is a bad idea and you want to go down this path, then you need to do it properly and with proper respect for the people who are involved, and the field.'”
Also, Rice University is investigating Dr. He’s Ph.D. adviser Michael Deem amid allegations of contributing to the research after Deem had admitted publicly to having been present, per the Times.
“A lot of people wish that those who knew or suspected would have made more noise,” University of Wisconsin-Madison bioethicist R. Alta Charo told the Times.
Dr. Quake justifies his silence, if not participation in the project, by saying his advice had scientifically ethical intentions.
“Well, hindsight is 20-20 – I mean, you could say ‘yes’ I should have done many other things,” he told the Times. “But, as these things unfold, you’re in the moment, and you know, he’s doing legitimate scientific research — many people would define it that way: he’s got I.R.B. approval and his institution is regulating the human subject stuff — and you sort of believe all that.
“To the extent that it wasn’t obvious misconduct, what does a person in my position do? Encourage him to do it right, his research, right? I mean, that’s what I believed I was doing.”
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