A Chinese researcher’s claim that he successfully modified the genes of human embryos may force the country to make a stark choice about the future of its burgeoning biotechnology industry — one with significant implications for an emerging technology arms race with the West.
He Jiankui, an American-educated scientist based in Shenzhen, announced on Monday that he’d used Crispr, a powerful gene-editing tool, to make recently born twin girls resistant to HIV. He’s statement, which was not backed by peer-reviewed data and hasn’t been verified, prompted widespread condemnation from scientists in China. Yet whatever the veracity of He’s claims, it’s likely that China, with its aggressively entrepreneurial startups and less stringent regulation, will be the country where researchers most rapidly test the currently-accepted boundaries of genetic manipulation. That presents its leaders with a dilemma: Whether to follow the US and Europe in strictly regulating its application, or take a more hands-off approach, catalysing rapid innovation in a strategic industry.
“There is always the possibility that there will be others who will bypass ethical jurisdictions, that have rigorous ethical processes in place, and will try and apply the technology,” said John Christodoulou, chair of genomic medicine at the University of Melbourne.
Govt orders probe, genetics-linked stocks slump
Chinese companies involved with genetic testing retreated after news that a researcher altered the genes of twin infant girls provoked global outrage and sparked a government investigation.
BGI Genomics and Berry Genomics, which both offer gene-testing services, fell as much as 3.3 per cent. Harmonicare Medical Holdings, a private obstetrics and gynecology hospital group linked to the episode, dropped as much as 8.2 per cent before eking out a gain.
A Chinese official on Tuesday emphasised at a press briefing that China had outlawed the use of gene-editing for fertility purposes in 2003. He, the researcher, will make the project’s data public Wednesday at an international genetics conference in Hong Kong.