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Stanford has 99 problems and the Chinese CRISPR baby might be one

Stanford has 99 problems and the Chinese CRISPR baby might be one
[Photo: Louis Reed/Unsplash]

Until November, genetically engineered humans were the stuff of post-apocalyptic science fiction (see Gattaca). As the advent of CRISPR’s gene-editing tech made genetically engineering humans a real possibility, it was cautioned against and never practiced–until it was. In November, MIT Technology Review revealed that Chinese scientist He Jiankui, a professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, had decided to boldly go where no man had gone before–he had reportedly genetically engineered babies, including twins girls named Lulu and Lala, whose genomes had been altered with CRISPR tech to render them immune to HIV.

He was immediately placed under investigation by Chinese authorities, could face serious legal consequences, and has spawned a thousand critiques and thinkpieces for wading into the ethical quagmire.

Now Stanford has launched its own investigation, because He reportedly reached out to three of Stanford’s researchers, sharing his plan to go rogue and start to gene-edit children, and seeking advice on next steps. According to new reporting from Technology Review, that includes medical ethicist William Hurlbut, gene-editing specialist Matthew Porteus, and Stephen Quake, a biophysicist who was He’s postdoc adviser. Quake also happens to be the co-president of the $600 million Chan Zuckerberg Biohub.

Stanford wants to know who knew what and when they knew it. According to Technology Review, the investigation will hopefully get to the bottom of the levels of Stanford’s involvement in the controversial experiment. While there are certainly legal reasons that Stanford would want to map out all its liabilities, there are ethical ones, too. After all, if its staff were involved in He’s work to gene-edit babies–or were financially invested in his company–the university should know if they have a Dr. Frankenstein on their hands.

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