Who is He Jiankui’s mentor Michael Deem & is he trying to edit himself out of CRISPR baby project?

Who is Michael Deem and what was his role in his former student He Jiankui’s purported production of twin CRISPR’d babies? Is Deem now trying to edit himself out of the project?

Michael Deem
Michael Deem (from his lab’s website).

He Jiankui relied on help from many people and Deem was reportedly a part of that team. Members of He’s own research team helped with the CRISPR of human embryos, but it’s unclear if they all knew about the implantation and pregnancies. Apparently He also enlisted help from assisted reproductive physicians and researchers. They too may or may not have known about the CRISPR embryos being implanted, but it’s hard to say at this point.

In contrast, at least according to the AP and other media reporters, Deem seemed well aware of what He Jiankui was doing. What is Deem’s background as a researcher and what was his role in the CRISPR baby project?

Deem is listed as the “John W. Cox Professor of Biochemical and Genetic Engineering, Professor, Physics and Astronomy” at Rice University. Despite the fact that amongst Deem’s titles is professor of “Genetic Engineering” (which could involve CRISPR gene editing) there isn’t really much of any mention of that kind of work on his Rice website or on his own lab page.

Rice is investigating what happened with He’s research and it seems to be trying to define what role, if any, Michael Deem played. Deem has been quoted in response to some others voicing doubts about whether He even made the CRISPR babies, “Of course the work occurred. I met the parents. I was there for the informed consent of the parents.”

If that’s an accurate quote, it sure suggests an important role for Deem, perhaps at a minimum as a key advisor. It’s hard to imagine in that context that He would have done the CRISPR baby work without encouragement or at least some kind of nodding approval from Deem. I recently emailed Deem to ask for clarification on his role, but got no reply. If Deem won’t discuss his work openly at this point then we’re all kind of left in the dark to speculate and need to rely on already existing media reports.

The AP in its first story on the CRISPR babies situation also indicated that Deem had some concrete roles in He Jiankui’s work. For instance, senior AP writer Marilynn Marchione who authored the piece, wrote:

“The U.S. scientist who worked with him on this project after He returned to China was physics and bioengineering professor Michael Deem, who was his adviser at Rice in Houston. Deem also holds what he called “a small stake” in — and is on the scientific advisory boards of — He’s two companies.”

This too seems to point unambiguously to roles for Deem. Yet more recently Michael Deem’s attorneys claim he had no role. The specific quote was this:

“Michael does not do human research and he did not do human research on this project,” says the statement issued Thursday by Houston lawyers David Gerger and Matt Hennessy.”

This could be damage control, in a sense trying to “edit” Deem out of the project. Or it may be a matter of semantics if Deem did not literally do any wet lab work, but somehow was still part of the team such as fulfilling the role of senior advisor to He or aiding in computational analysis or data interpretation.

The fact that Deem reportedly has a financial stake in He’s companies seems notable as well. A related question is whether Deem received funding from China or from He’s own pot of research funding.

Additional material from the original AP story suggests Deem himself had indicated to the AP that he was involved in He’s work:

“The Rice scientist, Deem, said he was present in China when potential participants gave their consent and that he “absolutely” thinks they were able to understand the risks.

Deem said he worked with He on vaccine research at Rice and considers the gene editing similar to a vaccine.

“That might be a layman’s way of describing it,” he said.”

It seems hard to imagine the AP got this all wrong. I actually asked the AP directly about this as well as whether they directly interviewed Deem and they said this:

“Yes, AP interviewed Michael Deem directly. The Associated Press stands by its story.”

In my view it’s likely the AP got things right.

I’d also say it’s a very misguided notion that CRISPR’ing CCR5 to produce random indels is anything like an HIV vaccine.

In addition from the same AP story, the following quote suggests He and Deem were together in China during various phases of the project and kept some things a secret from others: “Some staff at some of the other hospitals were kept in the dark about the nature of the research, which He and Deem said was done to keep some participants’ HIV infection from being disclosed.”

What more can we learn about Deem? Here’s the relatively moderate amount of info I found.

A recent STAT piece has some background on what went down in the Deem lab after the CRISPR baby news broke along with useful background on He Jiankui.

Deem’s educational and work background listed on his website suggest he’s an exceptionally smart and accomplished scientist. You can check out his publications here. There’s little if anything to hint at gearing up toward making humans with mutations via CRISPR. The same goes for his past (no current) NIH funding. You can search on the NIH Reporter tool with his name to see for yourself. I didn’t see any NSF funding. Deem and He have 8 publications together, including one just last year.

The official Rice University newspaper, the Rice Thresher, has an interesting recent piece entitled “Who is Michael Deem?” on Deem in the context of the CRISPR baby situation. It has a bit of different background information than I’ve seen elsewhere. For example, it’s possible Deem is the Chair of his department. Deem also has a Wikipedia page. I didn’t find a CV for him on the web though and I don’t seem him on Twitter.

To be clear I’m not saying Deem did anything wrong. Given the Rice investigation and the almost uniform negative reaction across the globe to the CRISPR baby announcement, it’s hard to fault Deem with being very cautious in handling this as well as with his public statements, but transparency is important too, especially given the explosive nature of this work.