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China wants to protect its genetic engineering reputation

January 24, 2019

With new success stories and a symbolic punishment of "Chinese Frankenstein" He Jiankui, China wants to distract from its lax ethical standards in science. In reality, authorities approved gene editing of human embryos.

China Shanghai - China klont erstmals mehrere genveränderte Affen
Image: picture-alliance/Xinhua//Institut für Neurowissenschaften der chinesischen Akademie der Wissenschaften

After Chinese scientists were criticized for their gene experiments late last year, China is coming up with a new success story: Chinese scientists have now cloned a genetically manipulated macaque who suffers from biorhythm disturbances of the circadian rhythm. The descendents are to used for research. The study was published in the Chinese journal National Science Review on January 24, 2019. The circadian rhythm in humans is associated with sleep disorders, depression, diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.

The Xinhua news agency wrote that for the first time the scientists had five monkeys with the same genetic background. Xinhua explicitly emphasizes that this research program has been monitored in line with international standards.

Shortly before, the state mouthpiece had announced that the controversial scientist He Jiankui would be brought to justice by the Chinese judiciary. The biophysicist had announced at an international genetic engineering conference in Hong Kong at the end of November 2018 that he succeeded in using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene scissors to create modified human embryos that are immune to the HI virus. HIV triggers the immunodeficiency disease AIDS. A woman had already given birth to two genetically modified twins at the time. The news of the procedure caused international outrage.

Investigations against He

Xinhua recently reported that the case had been handed over to the "public security authorities" and that He was being punished. His Faculty of Biology at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTec) in Shenzhen ended all cooperation with the black sheep of biotechnology on January 21, 2019.

"Based on the results of the Gene Editing Baby Event research team in Guangdong Province, our school has decided to cancel the employment contract with He Jiankui and terminate all teaching and research activities at the school," a statement said. 

Sustc.edu.cn website screenshot
In a nutshell: The school ends its collaboration with the researcherImage: sustc.edu.cn

The biophysicist He Jiankui was suspended from his university because He had violated "academic ethics and norms," it continued. In addition, China's National Health Commission ordered an official investigation. The provincial government also accused He of "forging ethical test papers" and "deliberately circumventing surveillance," writes Xinhua. 

The scientist is charged with "privately" organizing an international project team with foreign employees and using a "technology with uncertain security and effectiveness." According to the investigators, He was striving for "personal glory." In return, he took care of the financing of his project himself, investigators claim.

Third genetically modified child to be born soon

At the same time, Xinhua reported that investigations by a Chinese provincial government confirmed that a second mother became pregnant after in vitro fertilization by He Jiankui. The child has not yet been born. The expectant mother is under medical supervision, as are the twin girls born in November, the agency reports. The Chinese state will care for the patients.

According to official sources, He Jiankui is a loner, craving for recognition. He deliberately bypassed the official controls, but the Chinese judiciary will punish him for excesses he committed. That seems to be the message the authorities want to send out.

He Jiankui speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong.
He Jiankui was not applauded for his controversial experiment Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Imaginechina/Ling

Accordingly, the scientist's actions have been severely criticized in scientific circles, politics and society. According to Emmanuelle Charpentier, one of the discoverers of the Crispr/Cas9 mechanism, He Jiankui had "crossed a red line." The university in Shenzhen distanced itself from the project and the research team. The Chinese press named He Jiankui "China's Frankenstein."

The biophysicist had also informed the horrified public at the medical congress in Hong Kong that a total of eight couples had participated in the studies, with the fathers being HIV-positive and the mothers HIV-negative. At this conference, He had already announced the now confirmed "second potential pregnancy."

Where is "China's Frankenstein" hiding?

It remains unclear where the controversial researcher is currently located. The only thing that is certain is that he will no longer appear in public. At the beginning of December, the Chinese newspaper Apple Daily reported that He Jiankui was under house arrest on campus after his university dean had spoken to the researcher for several hours.

According to Apple Daily, a police car drove up and several guards cordoned off the campus. However, the university denies it: "Right now nobody's information is accurate, only the official channels are," a spokeswoman of the University of Shenzhen told the South China Morning Post in December.  The spokesperson also told the Chinese newspaper: "We cannot answer any questions regarding the matter right now, but if we have any information, we will update it through our official channels."

Again, the message is clear: Biophysicist He will continue to be shielded from the public. The authorities will settle on a set of prepared bits of information and then disseminate them through official channels.

Who knew what when?

In view of the strict state controls, it sounds surprising that He "privately" organised an international project team with foreign employees and "also took care of the financing of his project." Can a "Chinese Frankenstein" really break such a taboo in a quiet room without the official authorities having noticed?

The investigations are intended to show whether He "forged ethical test papers" and "deliberately circumvented surveillance," as the official Chinese mouthpiece Xinhua puts it. It is a fact, however, the biophysicist was a rising star in the field of Chinese genome research. He had received abundant government support over the years. According to the South China Morning Post, He had received the equivalent of €5 million ($5.7 million) in public money for his work since 2015.

Official application for controversial research project
Official application for the controversial research projectImage: http://www.chictr.org.cn

He Jiankui also officially registered his research project "Evaluation of the safety and efficacy of gene editing with human embryo CCR5 gene" in the Chinese Clinical Trail Registry on November, 8, 2018 under the registration number ChiCTR1800019378. There it is also noted that the Ethics Committee has examined the application 20170307. The corresponding certificate is attached to the form. It even says "Approval of the Medical Ethics Committee: In accordance with the ethical standards, the implementation is agreed."  

Approval of the controversial research project by the Ethics Committee
Approval of the controversial research project by the Ethics CommitteeImage: http://www.chictr.org.cn

All of this is a lie, officials now say. Biophysicist He has "falsified ethical test papers." Accordingly, there is now a marking on the original application form, which says that the application has been withdrawn, because the original applicant was unable to provide "the individual participants data for reviewing safety and validity evaluation of HIV-immune gene CCR5 gene editing in human embryos."

This indicated that the researcher's projects were sufficiently well known. And they were also massively supported through public funds. Only after the global outcry over the physicist breaking a taboo, nobody wants to have known about it. 

Doubtful doctoral supervisor from the US

There are also ethical accusations against He's American doctoral supervisor, Michael Deem from Rice University in Texas, who knew about the gene editing of the twins and was present when the couples gave their consent for the intervention. The information sheets for the patients were still available online in November 2018 (they were linked here in this commentary). In the meantime, however, the links to them no longer work.

Deem also holds smaller stakes in two companies founded by He and is part of his scientific consulting team. Upon his return from the USA, He raised a total of $35 million for his startups. In addition, He had commissioned surveys to raise public approval for his project. This was also known, but the official authorities in China now claim that they have no knowledge of that.

Reputation of the booming biotechnology sector endangered

The negative reporting is tainting the image of the Chinese biotechnology industry. China expects great opportunities from CRISPR-Cas9 technology in particular. The government wants to spend more than €400 million on biotechnology in it's current five-year plan.

Biotechnology is one of 10 scientific fields that enjoy special funding in China, marked as technologies for the future. The Chinese government is particularly keen to play a key role in genetic research because Western companies will likely maintain their leading position in traditional pharmaceuticals.

"China is expected to become a world leader in science and technology," China's President Xi Jinping told members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in May 2018. China needs to catch up and become a pioneer and innovator. The government's target applies to all ministries, authorities and research institutions in which key positions are staffed with loyal party members.

Reasonable euphoria - also in the West 

According to Bloomberg, in addition to state subsidies, around $1 billion of private capital was invested in Chinese biotechnology in 2017. It is no coincidence that US lender Morgan Stanley created the "China Biotech Index," which includes 15 promising biotech companies with a focus on China.

China clones five gene-edited monkeys for research
China wants to defend its lead in genetic engineering, but avoid bad headlinesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Xinhua/J. Liwang

"Chinese Frankenstein" breaking the human gene editing taboo throws an unnecessary spotlight on the entire industry. In a letter of protest, 112 Chinese biotechnology scientists sharply condemned his research as a "crazy experiment" that would endanger the success and growth of the entire biotechnology industry. This is all the more remarkable as it is well known that it is not very common in China for protest letters to be made public.

Even if academics and government demonstratively distance themselves from the controversial researcher He, the ethically delicate experiments with the gene scissors naturally continue. The German daily Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung for example quotes Chinese bioscientist Wang Haifeng as saying "I dare to suggest that there are numerous laboratories that continue research in this direction." Wang is senior vice president for the Chinese company Baidu and responsible, among other things, for artificial intelligence and research.

Low standards vs. lengthy procedures

China has long been accused of having significantly lower ethical standards than Western countries. Chinese researchers would have to deal less with ethical concerns or government controls, as this is the only way to catch up with US biotechnology in the near future.

The West and China will probably continue to accuse themselves of low standards versus lengthy procedures. The attractive biotechnology sector is fiercely contested. With binding ethical standards and strict state control, China will ensure that its booming biotechnology does not fall into disrespect, even in the West, despite all the euphoria.

The official authorities will do their utmost to ensure that "China's Frankenstein" and the "Chinese CRISPR-Cas9 crisis" are quickly forgotten. New, undisputed research successes are likely to dominate the headlines from China in the future.