Stanford University has cleared Stephen Quake, a bioengineering professor, of any wrongdoing in his interactions with a Chinese researcher who roiled the scientific world by creating the first gene-edited babies.
“In evaluating evidence and witness statements, we found that Quake observed proper scientific protocol,” said a letter from the university to Dr. Quake, obtained by The New York Times on Tuesday.
Referring to the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, by his nickname, JK, the letter said that Stanford’s investigators concluded that Dr. Quake did not “directly participate in any way in JK’s research, including in the conception or performance of the work.”
In fact, the letter said, Dr. Quake discouraged Dr. He from pursuing the project and urged him to follow proper scientific practices after he insisted on going ahead.
Dr. Quake was one of three professors whose interactions with Dr. He were being reviewed by Stanford, and his association with Dr. He was the most extensive. The other two — Dr. Matthew Porteus, a genetics researcher, and Dr. William Hurlbut, an ethicist — had previously said they strongly discouraged Dr. He when he told them of his idea to create genetically engineered babies.
In a statement Tuesday, Stanford, which has never publicly named the professors under review, said that it had exonerated all of them.
“Based on all of the available information, 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 statement said. “The review found that the Stanford researchers expressed serious concerns to Dr. He about his work.”
Since Dr. He announced the birth of the gene-edited twins in November, the research community has been debating what actions scientists should take if they know about ethically questionable experiments. Global institutions, including the World Health Organization, are working to establish an international reporting and monitoring system.
Dr. Quake’s interactions with Dr. He were detailed in a recent New York Times article, which included excerpts from emails that Dr. Quake showed to a Times reporter.
The emails show that Dr. He, 35, who had been a postdoctoral student in Dr. Quake’s lab in 2011, kept Dr. Quake apprised of major steps, including the implantation of the edited embryos in the woman’s womb and the birth of the twins months later. They show that Dr. Quake suggested that Dr. He obtain ethical approval from Chinese institutions and submit the project’s data for vetting by peer-reviewed journals.
The emails contain encouraging expressions like “Wow, that’s quite an achievement!” But the correspondence makes it clear that Dr. Quake did not participate in the work itself.
On Tuesday, Dr. Quake, who turned 50 this week, said: “I’m pleased this inquiry is over and its conclusion is consistent with what I knew to be true: that I had urged Dr. He not to pursue this path and when it became clear he wouldn’t listen to me, to adhere to high scientific and ethical standards in his research.”
Dr. Quake, an entrepreneur whose inventions include blood tests to detect Down syndrome in pregnancy and to avoid organ transplant rejection, is also co-president of an institute funded by the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan.
The investigation of Dr. Quake began after the president of Dr. He’s Chinese university wrote letters alleging that Dr. Quake had helped with the project.
The letters, obtained by The Times, claimed that “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.”
The Chinese government, in a preliminary report in January, concluded that Dr. He forged ethical review documents and engaged in actions that “seriously violated ethics, scientific research integrity and relevant state regulations.”