Genetically engineered babies and cloned monkeys: China tests bioethics

HONG KONG: A Chinese scientist's claim that he created the world's first genetically modified babies has highlighted what critics say are lax regulatory controls and ethical standards behind a series of biomedical advances in China.

The university professor, He Jiankui, on Sunday (November 25) said that the DNA of the twins had been modified to prevent them from contracting HIV, but their statements provoked a violent reaction from the scientific community that not only cast doubt on the advance, but also questioned morality.

China is trying to become a leader in the fields of genetic research and cloning, advancing even when others doubt ethical issues.

READ: a scientist from China claims to have made the world's first genetically modified babies

The country's scientists were the first to perform the gene editing in human embryos in 2015, although with mixed results, reported the British magazine Nature in 2017. And earlier this year, Chinese scientists discovered monkeys that were cloned using the same technique that produced Dolly. The sheep two decades ago.

While the procedure could boost medical research on human diseases, it also raised ethical questions about how close scientists have come to human cloning.


Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero sparked a controversy last year when he claimed to have performed the world's first head transplant on a corpse in a Chinese hospital, according to the Global Times state at the time, although other scientists have stated that his claims are exaggerated .

On Sunday, who was educated at Stanford University, he announced in a YouTube video that he had used CRISPR, a technique that allows scientists to remove and replace a strand with pinpoint accuracy, to modify the twins' DNA.

The tool has not been used in human trials in the United States, although doctors in China have been using it to treat patients with cancer.

Data file on the development of the CRISPr gene editing technique.

Data file on the development of the gene editing technique CRISPr AFP / John SAEKI

Qiu Renzong, a former vice chairman of the ethics committee of the Chinese Ministry of Health, accused him of obtaining a "fraudulent" ethics review by going to another hospital to be checked instead of getting approval from his own university, adding that he was destroying the reputation of China's scientists. .

Qiu said that the lack of regulation means that scientists often do not face punishment, since they are only obliged to comply with the rules of their institutions, which may not stipulate punishments for misconduct.

READ: Scientists and officials in China abhor gene editing claimed by the geneticist

"People say that the ministry has no teeth, can not bite people, so we try to give the head of the ministry the teeth, so they can bite people when people break the regulations," he told reporters. English at a gene editing conference in Hong. Kong.

"The continent protects scientists a lot, if you make a small mistake, that is the end, there is no punishment, I suggest that they should be punished," he added.


The scientist He Jiankui shows "The human genome", a book he edited, in his company Direct Ge

Scientist He Jiankui shows "The Human Genome", a book he edited, at his company Direct Genomics in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China, on August 4, 2016. REUTERS / Stringer

With a skeptical research community waiting for evidence of He's assertions, the scientist is expected to speak at the same conference in Hong Kong on Wednesday and Thursday.

He, who works in a laboratory in the city of Shenzhen, in southern China, is also facing scrutiny on the continent, and the National Health Commission ordered an investigation into the case.

A group of 122 Chinese scientists signed a joint statement calling the experiment "crazy" and saying it was unfair to other scientists who adhere to "the moral line."

The University of Science and Technology of the South, where he works, said he had been on unpaid leave since February and that his investigation is a "serious violation of ethics and academic standards."

READ: the Chinese university will investigate after the academic statements of having edited the genes of the twins

A notice from the medical ethics authority of Shenzhen said that all medical organizations should establish an ethics review committee before undertaking a biomedical research on humans, and the hospital ethics board involved had not completed their registration as required.

He defended his research in another video, saying he is trying to help families that have genetic diseases.

"We believe that ethics is on our side in history, remember the 1970s with Louise Brown, the same fears and criticisms are repeated now," he said, referring to the first person born through in vitro fertilization.


China has the second largest genomic market in the world, according to UBS. CCID Consulting, based in Beijing, estimates that the market value will almost triple from 7.2 trillion yuan (US $ 1 trillion) in 2017 to 18.3 trillion yuan (US $ 2.6 trillion) by 2022.

READ: the gene-editing tool may increase cancer risk in cells, scientists warn

The more flexible regulations have allowed China to advance in the biomedical field, said Michael Donovan, founder of Veraptus, a biotechnology company in China.

But other factors, such as a larger population that provides a larger pool of potential patients, as well as regulatory support from the government, also played a role, Donovan said.

"In many industries, the regulatory position is that if there are no laws for that, then you can proceed with caution," he added.

"And that's the turbid area where gene editing is at this moment."

While certain hospitals can approve certain procedures without going to a national approval body, it was "very strange" that they did not get the green light from a national authority for such an innovative experiment, Donovan said.

"From the ethical point of view, you do not have the religious group that we have in the United States," he said. "But it's still life, so people still worry about us moving too fast with this."


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