China scientists brush aside ethical concerns

Researchers behind controversial human embryo study insist that 'the pioneers will make the rules'

BEIJING • Chinese genetic scientists must not be put off sensitive research by ethical concerns, the team behind a controversial study on modified human embryos said as debate erupted over their published research.

Researchers from Guangzhou Medical University said they used a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to artificially induce a mutation in human cells and make them resistant to HIV, the virus that causes Aids. Their paper, which appeared last week in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, is only the world's second published account of gene editing in human embryos.

Critics said the study - intended as a proof-of-principle exercise - was unnecessary and lacked medical justification, and strongly cautioned against the broader ethical implications of the slippery slope of human genome modification.

"This paper doesn't look like it offers much more than anecdotal evidence that (CRISPR) works in human embryos, which we already knew," Dr George Daley, a stem cell biologist at the Children's Hospital Boston, told the prominent science journal Nature.

It demonstrated that "the science is going forward before there's been the general consensus after deliberation that such an approach is medically warranted", he added.

UNNECESSARY EXERCISE

This paper doesn't look like it offers much more than anecdotal evidence that (CRISPR) works in human embryos, which we already knew.

DR GEORGE DALEY, a stem cell biologist at Children's Hospital Boston.

In a statement issued yesterday by the hospital where they carried out their research, the Guangzhou team brushed aside such concerns, focusing instead on the "incalculable" size of the future market for disease treatments.

"The assessments of those outside the field are not authoritative, and the research environment will continue to evolve," they said.

FUTURE FOCUS

For us, what is most important is that we diligently complete our research and stick to the path we believe in, acquiring independent intellectual property rights... so that we do not have to defer to others.

THE GUANGZHOU TEAM, in a statement issued yesterday.

"For us, what is most important is that we diligently complete our research and stick to the path we believe in, acquiring independent intellectual property rights... so that we do not have to defer to others."

Such perseverance, they said, will ensure "our own position in the international community", adding: "The future market for the treatment of diseases through gene editing is incalculable."

Speaking to China's state-run Global Times newspaper, the paper's lead author Fan Yong said: "It is the pioneers that will make the rules in this field."

Mr Han Bin, the director of China's National Centre for Gene Research, told the paper - which often takes a nationalistic tone - that the technology's potential therapeutic benefits for all diseases caused by inherited variation, including cancer, should outweigh any qualms.

Instead of following other countries' ethical stances, China should formulate its own standards and regulations, the Global Times cited him as saying.

China is quickly cementing a reputation as a leader in the fields of genetic research and cloning, showing a willingness to forge ahead even as others hesitate over ethical issues. The world's biggest cloning factory is under construction in the northern port of Tianjin, with plans to churn out everything from pets to premium beef cattle.

The Guangzhou Medical University study used flawed embryos not viable for fertility treatment, and had been approved by the university's ethics committee.

The legality of human embryo research varies by country, and there is no international consensus on what ought to be allowed.

In the US, the influential National Institutes of Health are banned from funding such studies, while Britain's independent fertility regulator issued its first licence for human embryo modification research only in February, for a study on infertility and miscarriages.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'China scientists brush aside ethical concerns'. Print Edition | Subscribe