Gene-edited babies: China wants to be the world leader, but at what cost?

Recent claims of the world’s first gene-edited babies have sparked a strong response, to say the least. In particular, the Southern University of Science and Technology, which employs the researcher involved, He Jiankui, stated in a press release that they were not aware of his work, that it took place off campus, and that it was a case of potential scientific misconduct that would not go unaddressed.

The striking news marks a sharp increase in the controversy surrounding human genome editing. But this isn’t the first time a Chinese team has used the CRISPR technique on human embryos in a way that few researchers from other countries have attempted, and the country has claimed several firsts in the field.

The debate about China’s advances in this area broke out of laboratories and scientific circles a few years ago. In a 2015 New York Times article, “A scientific ethical divide between China and West”, Yi Huso, director of research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Centre for Bioethics, stated: “I don’t think China wants to take a moratorium […] People are saying they can’t stop the train of mainland Chinese genetics because it’s going too fast.”

However, there are some important things to understand about the state of human genome editing in China today. First, access to surplus embryos in China isn’t much easier than anywhere else. On average, 83% of Chinese couples going through IVF procedures decide to keep their embryos up to three years after giving birth to a child. In the United States, approximately 62% of American couples keep their embryos up to five years after a birth. In France, of 220,000 frozen surplus embryos, just 20,000 can be made available for research, and less than 10% of those have been effectively used.

The new technological race

But China has entered a “genome editing” race among great scientific nations and its progress didn’t come out of nowhere. China has invested heavily in the natural-sciences sector over the past 20 years. The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2001) mentioned the crucial importance of biotechnologies. The current Thirteenth Five-Year Plan is even more explicit. It contains a section dedicated to “developing efficient and advanced biotechnologies” and lists key sectors such as “genome-editing technologies” intended to “put China at the bleeding edge of biotechnology innovation and become the leader in the international competition in this sector”.

Chinese embryo research is regulated by a legal framework, the “technical norms on human-assisted reproductive technologies”, published by the Science and Health Ministries. The guidelines theoretically forbid using sperm or eggs whose genome have been manipulated for procreative purposes. However, it’s hard to know how much value is actually placed on this rule in practice, especially in China’s intricate institutional and political context.

In theory, three major actors have authority on biomedical research in China: the Science and Technology Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Chinese Food and Drug Administration. In reality, other agents also play a significant role. Local governments interpret and enforce the ministries’ “recommendations”, and their own interpretations can lead to significant variations in what researchers can and cannot do on the ground. The Chinese National Academy of Medicine is also a powerful institution that has its own network of hospitals, universities and laboratories.

Another prime actor is involved: the health section of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has its own biomedical faculties, hospitals and research labs. The PLA makes its own interpretations of the recommendations and has proven its ability to work with the private sector on gene editing projects. In January 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that 86 patients had been enlisted into a clinical trial in an attempt to cure cancer. A Chinese start-up, Anhui Kedgene Biotechnology, was involved in this partnership with the PLA hospital 105, in Hefei province.

It is still to early to tell what is really at stake here. The Ng-Ago precedent should make everyone cautious of such major announcements: even published articles can be retracted, and peer-reviewed research amended. This announcement is not even at that stage. And the media timing is just a bit too perfect, as Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review’s senior biomedicine editor, stated in a tweet: "This is clearly not the end of the story, just another dramatic step into the new age of gene editing.The Conversation"

Guillaume Levrier, is a PhD candidate at CEVIPOF (Sciences Po's Research Centre for Political Research), Sciences Po. This article has been republished from The Conversation, under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

More articles like this

Shirin Ebadi Calls for Fariba Adelkhah's Liberation

Shirin Ebadi Calls for Fariba Adelkhah's Liberation

On 5 June 2019, Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, both researchers at the Sciences Po Centre for International Studies (CERI), were arrested and imprisoned in Tehran. One year later, despite the release of Roland Marchal on 20 March 2020, Fariba Adelkhah remains incarcerated at Evin prison. On this day that marks the anniversary of her wrongful imprisonment, Olivier Duhamel, President of the National Foundation for Political Science (FNSP), and Frédéric Mion, President of Sciences Po, reaffirm their support for our colleague and share a message from Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

More
Back to School 2020: a 

Back to School 2020: a "dual campus" model

In response to the uncertainty facing universities worldwide with regards to the start of the next academic year, Sciences Po is mobilising to guarantee all its students as complete and demanding an education as ever. Sciences Po remains faithful to the university’s vocation of training free, critical and socially engaged minds, intellectually informed through research and interaction with professionals at the heart of our teaching. It is this wholesome and well-balanced education that will give you the means to act in a world more uncertain now than ever.

More
The Nancy Campus is 20 Years Old!

The Nancy Campus is 20 Years Old!

In October 2000, 42 first-year and second-year students arrived on Sciences Po’s first international campus outside of Paris, in Nancy. Inaugurated by Richard Descoings, then President of Sciences Po, the Nancy campus hosts the Undergraduate College’s European programme with a focus on Franco-German relations. In twenty years, over 2,000 students have studied at the Nancy campus.

More
Webinar: The Welfare States During and After the Covid Crisis

Webinar: The Welfare States During and After the Covid Crisis

In this webinar, organised in the frame of CIVICA - The European University of Social Sciences - professors and researchers Waltraud Schelke (LSE), Anke Hassel (Hertie School of Governance), Anton Hemerijck (European University Institute, Florence) and Bruno Palier (LIEPP Sciences Po) discussed welfare states - before and after the Covid crisis.

More
Fariba Adelkhah Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison

Fariba Adelkhah Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison

On Saturday, 16 March 2020, we learned that Fariba Adelkhah, researcher of Sciences Po’s Centre for International Studies (CERI), who has faced imprisonment in Iran for now almost a year, has been sentenced to six years in prison by the 15th Chamber of the Tehran Court.

More