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

"Tech leaders ought to study the humanities"

Maëlle Gavet, Sciences Po alumna, was awarded the 2019 alumni award from the Sciences Po American Foundation. Gavet graduated from Sciences Po in 2002, and today is the Chief Operating Officer of Compass, a real estate technology company building an end-to-end platform for agents and their clients. In her acceptance speech, Gavet surveyed the challenges facing the tech industry, a field in which she has 15 years of professional experience. She argued that while technology has unquestionably improved almost every aspect of the way we live and work, it has had a host lethal side effects and unintended consequences impacting their own employees, communities, other businesses and, last but not least, democracy. Gavet’s suggested solution is to reimagine the way tech leaders are educated. In her opinion, while humanities will not magically fix everything that’s wrong with tech, it can certainly help introduce the much needed empathy and understanding of the world. "We need engineers who can both code and read the Economist. We need engineers obsessed with transforming society (not moving fast and breaking it)," she said. We followed up with Gavet after her speech for a quick interview about the themes that she addressed and tips for recent Sciences Po graduates.

More
International Relations In Practice

International Relations In Practice

Sciences Po pour les Nations Unies is an association which centres itself around all thing international relations and diplomacy. The association has enjoyed great success at the recent WorldMUN, with three students Antoine Da Col, Roland Martial, and Mounia El Khawand, all winning prizes. We met Eve de Seguins Pazzis (president) and Chloé Bernard (vice president) to find out more. 

More
The Political Consequences of Technological Change

The Political Consequences of Technological Change

Article by Bruno Palier, researcher at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics.

Studying the political consequences of digital technology does not just involve the study of political movements, the media, and social networks. It also requires an exploration of the resulting social transformations. Here I present the political consequences of labor market transformations linked to technological changes in the labor market.

More
Saving the Oceans at Sciences Po

Saving the Oceans at Sciences Po

In honour of World Oceans Day and Oceans Week at Sciences Po, read this interview of Eve Isambourg, a Sciences Po student and oceans activist. Eve spent her third year abroad raising awareness on oceanic issues around the world, and spoke at the United Nations in New York defending our planet's oceans. (Interview originally published in 2018).

More

"I Wasn’t Looking For a Toolbox, But New Perspectives"

Gregoire Medina is pursuing a Master’s in Communication at Sciences Po Executive Education. After ten years of professional experience, he decided it was time to “take some time”, not necessarily to acquire news skills, but to reflect on his profession and industry. In the course of the Master’s, students go on a learning expedition. Gregoire tells us about his experience.

More
Giving Afghan Women A Voice

Giving Afghan Women A Voice

Samina Ansari graduated from PSIA in 2018 and is currently the Executive Director at the Women’s Centre at the American University of Afghanistan. Whilst looking into gender studies, she realised that women were rarely at the heart of conflict resolution and the rebuilding of countries torn apart by war. This translated directly to her own country, Afghanistan, and it was this which inspired her to return and to firmly cement the role of women in the country’s peace negotiations with the Taliban. 

More
Erasmus Generation

Erasmus Generation

The Jeunes Européens is a student association at the heart of Sciences Po which over the past few months has focused its efforts on increasing interest in questions about Europe and encouraging students to vote. Of course they love Europe, but they do not hesitate to broach areas for reform. Interview with Maria Popcyzk, the President of the Jeunes Européens Sciences Po.

More
From Sciences Po to the European Parliament

From Sciences Po to the European Parliament

Charlotte Nørlund-Matthiessen did her undergraduate studies on the Dijon campus, which hosts the European specialisation programme with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe, before enrolling in the European Affairs Master’s programme at Sciences Po. Since graduating in 2012, she has worked on multiple projects inspired by her drive to build a stronger Europe. Today she works as a Parliamentary Assistant for a French MEP at the European Parliament in Brussels.

More