Giving China a Say in Science

The world can't set new ethical guidelines for gene research without Chinese input.

Chinese researchers may have more tolerance for human experimentation.

Photographer: Guang Niu/Getty Images

In the last three years, hundreds of laboratories around the world have acquired the ability to cut-and-paste genes with the ease and precision of a word processor’s find-and-replace function. The technology, known as CRISPR, is cheap, relatively simple and to this point, has been mostly used on animals and plants.

That won’t last, however. In April, a team of Chinese scientists announced they’d used CRISPR to edit genes in human embryos, and in September a group of U.K. scientists asked for permission to do the same. The two cases are raising fears that genetic engineering may be progressing faster than the consequences can be properly understood and the practice regulated.

On Dec. 1, in the first coordinated effort to confront these issues, leading scientific organizations from the U.S., U.K. and China will convene in Washington, D.C. for an International Summit on Human Gene Editing. China’s participation is critical. Scientific American reports that “dozens, if not hundreds” of Chinese institutions are doing CRISPR research. The only way guidelines and possible regulations for gene editing will succeed is if the Chinese willingly buy into them. That means China must play a leading role in drafting those rules.

This may be the first time in the modern era when China has been powerful enough to influence new guidelines affecting the global scientific community. Scientists and policymakers last convened over an unsettling new biotechnology in 1975, in Asilomar, Calif. The concern then was recombinant DNA technology, which facilitates the splicing of genes from different species in novel configurations.

Leading researchers -- almost all of whom were Americans and Europeans -- drafted guidelines at the Asilomar conference that later became laws and regulations in many countries. Mired in the Cultural Revolution at the time, China didn’t take part. (And in any case, its scientists lacked access to the then-advanced technology.) Since then, as in so many other fields, Chinese researchers have had to contend with rules they had no role in establishing.

China has reasons to be wary of efforts to regulate CRISPR. The ease of using the technology, and its novelty, means that it’s a ripe area of biomedicine for China to lead. A global regulatory framework built without Chinese input would only feed suspicions that the West was seeking to restrain China’s scientific progress.

Meanwhile, the commercialization of animals produced using CRISPR -- Chinese scientists have developed meatier goats and cute pet micro-pigs, among other modified creatures -- suggests that at least some Chinese researchers might have greater tolerance for experimentation than their Western peers. When it comes to human-gene experiments, “Confucian thinking says that someone becomes a person after they are born” Deng Rui, a medical ethicist at Shanxi Medical University, told the New York Times in June. “That is different from the United States or other countries with a Christian influence, where because of religion they may feel research on embryos is not O.K.”

At the least, those values have to be taken into consideration for any consensus global framework of regulations to succeed. Declaring a global moratorium on human-gene research would only encourage China to go its own way.

For those anxious about the consequences of human-gene editing, the good news is that early experiments haven’t been terribly promising. The Chinese researchers working on human embryos failed to splice replacement genes in almost all cases and introduced several “off target” mutations, leading them to halt the research. It’s also good to remember that two decades after the first cloning of animals, fears that people might be next haven’t come close to bearing out.

Still, even failures are likely to encourage additional experiments, in China and elsewhere. The most important task for the global scientific community is to make sure such research is conducted as openly and transparently as possible. As the science and its consequences become clearer, that knowledge can help guide the development of future regulations.

In the meantime, next month’s global summit should become a regular occurrence, and its host committee should expand to include more Chinese and other Asian scientists (the current committee includes 10 North American and European members, and two Chinese), as well as strive to hold meetings in China and other developing countries. China should be encouraged to contribute funds to and participate in an international effort to evaluate whether CRISPR is a suitable system for developing human-gene therapies. With luck, cooperation will build trust between Chinese and Western scientific communities, while helping the world figure out where the limits of this powerful new technology should lie.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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