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Texas Professor's Involvement In Chinese Genetic Editing Investigated

HOUSTON (CBDFW.COM/CNN) - A professor at Rice University is being investigated for his possible involvement with research done by a Chinese scientist who claims to have helped make the world's first genetically edited babies.

Officials with the university in Houston say it is investigating bioengineering professor Michael Deem after he was quoted as having been involved with the work done by Chinese researcher He Jiankui.

Michael Deem
Michael W. Deem, Ph.D. (credit: Rice University News)

Deem was He's adviser at Rice for more than three years and published three papers with He.

"This research raises troubling scientific, legal and ethical questions," said Doug Miller, director of Rice University's media relations team. In a statement, Miller said Rice had "no knowledge of this work."

He claims to have used a tool called CRISPR-Cas9, which can insert or deactivate certain genes, to alter the DNA of several embryos to make them resistant to HIV.

In a YouTube video He announced that two girls, twins named Lulu and Nana, had been born a "few weeks ago" and were allegedly perfectly healthy. Now there are questions concerning the possible birth of a third genetically edited baby.

He Jiankui
Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on November 28, 2018. (credit: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

While speaking at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing on Wednesday, He was asked whether there are other pregnancies with genome editing as part of his clinical trials. The scientist replied to a packed hall of some 700 people: "There is another one, another potential pregnancy."

While none of the alleged experiments were performed in the United States, since this sort of gene editing is illegal here, officials with Rice University say a full investigation of Dr. Deem's involvement in the research is underway.

The university issued a statement that said, in part --

"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."

An independent expert questioned whether He's claims could be a hoax. Speaking to the Associated Press, Deem called the accusation ridiculous.

"Of course the work occurred," Deem said. "I met the parents. I was there for the informed consent of the parents."

As it stands, He's gene editing research has yet to be vetted by experts or published in any scientific journals.

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