China Shrinks From the Gattaca Age

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Even in the futuristic discipline of genetic engineering, scientific conferences are generally staid affairs. The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, held Nov. 27-29 in Hong Kong, looked like it would be no exception—until a Chinese scientist upended the agenda. On Nov. 26, U.S.-trained, Shenzhen-based He Jiankui announced that he’d altered the genes of a human embryo to create the first so-called designer baby, like something out of the movie Gattaca. Actually, two babies: twin girls from whom He said he’d deleted a gene that makes people susceptible to HIV. The geneticist provided details of his work in a series of YouTube videos; he hasn’t yet published peer-reviewed documentation.

It was a moment many bioethicists had feared was inevitable, particularly in the world’s most populous country. Chinese researchers have experimented prolifically with the Crispr gene-editing technique since its 2012 discovery, fueling concerns among Western scientists that they might blow past the consensus on how to do so safely and ethically. Many of the field’s leaders were predictably outraged. Jennifer Doudna, Crispr’s co-inventor, called He’s actions “truly unacceptable.”

Less expected was the reaction of the Chinese government. On Nov. 29, Xu Nanping, vice minister of science and technology, told state TV that authorities had halted work at He’s lab and planned “a comprehensive and objective investigation of the facts of the incident.” Vice Minister of Industry and Information Technology Huai Jinpeng said the government intended to take a “zero-tolerance attitude in dealing with dishonorable behavior” in research and would bar He from a national science award for which he was a candidate.

Those signs that China may restrict genetic research more than previously thought mark a sharp contrast with the country’s approach to artificial intelligence. AI-enabled facial recognition is now a fact of daily life in many Chinese cities, where it’s used to autonomously issue tickets for offenses like jaywalking. And with state encouragement, municipal governments and internet companies such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. have created elaborate “social credit” systems that would strike most Westerners as Orwellian. The systems tally behavior deemed social or antisocial to produce an overall score that can affect access to public services. Fail to pay traffic fines, for example, and you might find yourself unable to book train tickets.

Beijing’s response to He removes a degree of ambiguity from Chinese rules. While the U.S. and Europe have placed tight restrictions on the use of Crispr in reproduction, China’s main regulation on the subject is a set of in vitro fertilization rules dating to 2003, long before the invention of gene editing as we know it. Xu, however, said those rules forbid work of the kind He says he performed.

Chinese scientists quickly closed ranks against He. In a joint statement, a group of 122 Chinese researchers from institutions including the elite Peking and Fudan universities called his project “madness” and urged the government to toughen its rules further. He’s actions, they said, “delivered a blow to the reputation and development of Chinese biological research in the eyes of the world.” The Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Cell Biology issued similar denunciations.

While Crispr has shown significant promise for treating disease, little is known about its long-term risks, and many of He’s fellow scientists say they’re worried about accidentally altering more genes than the ones intended. Especially risky, they say, is the technique He says he performed, “germline editing,” which results in changes that can be passed on to a patient’s descendants. Germline editing “will change the gene pool of the human species,” Renzong Qiu, a senior academic at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said at the Hong Kong conference. “How could Dr. He and [his] team change the gene pool of the human species without considering the need to consult other parts of the human species?”

Things are looking dicey for He, who stood by his work at the conference but hasn’t been seen in public since. Harmonicare Medical Holdings Ltd., the owner of the hospital that He said approved his work, said in a Nov. 27 filing that it never did so and that signatures on an application for ethical review appear to have been forged. The hospital, Harmonicare said, “will invite public-security organizations to participate in the investigations and pursue the legal responsibilities of the relevant individuals.” No one knows what they’ll find, but one thing seems clear: The first doctor to (apparently) genetically engineer a human baby isn’t going to become a wealthy celebrity on the order of China’s AI leaders. He might be lucky to stay out of jail. —With Rachel Chang, Bruce Einhorn, and Daniela Wei

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeff Muskus at jmuskus@bloomberg.net

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