Why were the world’s first gene-editing babies born in China?
Tiantian Chen, March ‘19
On November 26, 2018, the official newspaper People’s Daily announced on its website that the world’s first gene-edited babies genetically resistant to AIDS were born in China. He Jiankui, a professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology, orchestrated the experiment. He recruited eight married couples with HIV seropositivity. Then he used a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9 to disable parental copies of a gene called CCR5. CCR5 could allow the protein used by HIV to penetrate cells. The aim of his experiment was to protect babies from infecting HIV. One woman was successfully pregnant and delivered twin girls in early October.
After the announcement from People’s Daily, the experiment soon received both domestic and international criticism. The criticism was so harsh that People’s Daily deleted the report. Many scientists were against the experiment because the side-effects of the gene-editing technology were unforeseen. In fact, Professor He’s study violated the national regulations on Assisted Reproductive Technology which was issued in 2003 in China. On one hand, the regulations required scientists to keep human embryos for research purposes for less than 14 days, while Professor He’s study kept embryos for more than 14 days. On the other hand, the regulations denounced human experimentation. Since Professor He’s experiment was neither ethical nor legal, it is puzzling why he was still able to conduct the study in China.
The study could not be completed without the governmental support. According to Professor He’s clinical trial registration which was still available online, the source of funding was from Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Free Exploration Project (“the Project”), though staff of the Project later said that Professor He’s study was self-funded. The Project was launched by Shen Zhen Technology Innovation Committee, a government office that promotes science and technology development in the city of Shenzhen. The Shenzhen government launched the Project to respond to Chairman Xi’s call for massive expenditure on science and technology. According to Chairman Xi’s speech at the 19th CPC National Congress, government should “aim for the frontiers of science and technology, strengthen basic research, and make major breakthroughs in pioneering basic research and groundbreaking and original innovations” (Xinhuanet, 2019). In addition to Professor He’s gene-editing study, the Shenzhen government also funded his single-molecule sequencing technology project with 1.5 million RMB in 2015 and funded his new sequencing technology study with 4.5 million RMB in 2019.
Professor He’s study echoed with the national ambitions in technology innovation. For example, in his application to the ethics committee of Harmonicare Shenzhen Women and Children’s Hospital, he noted, “we expect that the project will establish strict industry quality control standards for genetic surgery and occupy the commanding heights of the entire field of gene editing technology. The project will stand out in the increasingly intense international competition of gene editing technologies. The project is more groundbreaking than the IVF technology that won the 2010 Nobel Prize, and it will bring forth dawn of the cure for countless serious hereditary diseases.” Professor He championed the technological supremacy of his study. By arguing that his study was groundbreaking and stood out the entire field of gene editing technology, he satisfied the government desire for indigenous innovation. No wonder People’s Daily celebrated his study as “a milestone accomplishment China has achieved in the area of gene-editing technologies” (Chinanews, 2018). Moreover, Professor He implied that his study had potential to win a Nobel Prize. China uses the number of Nobel medals to measure a country’s capacity for developing technology. Therefore, the Shenzhen government approved and funded Professor He’s study to promote the country’s scientific prowess.
According to the clinical trial registration and the ethics review, the study was conducted in the Harmonicare Shenzhen Women and Children’s Hospital (“the Hospital”), though the Hospital later declined that all the documents were fake. The Hospital which primarily delivered maternal service was privately owned by Mr. Lin Yuming. He was one of the successors of the largest private hospital network in China called the Putian medical group. The Putian medical group is an organized group of businessmen who are all originally from the city of Putian and establish private hospitals across China. Those hospitals specialise in stigmatised diseases varying from sexually transmitted diseases to dermatopathya or infertility.
The Putian medical group is known as sham in China. It was widely criticised by the public during the case of Wei Zexi. Wei was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma. He went to the Second Hospital of the Beijing Armed Police Corps operated by the Putian medical group and tried an immunotherapy treatment called DC-CIK. The hospital claimed that the treatment was the most advanced cancer treatment in the world. Wei spent 200000 RMB (20000GBP), but the treatment proved useless. Wei died eventually. Ironically, the Putian medical group is legal and able to obtain licenses. It has also attracted billions of dollars’ investment from Sequoia Capital and Morgan Stanley.
Putian-linked investors not only supported Professor He’s gene-editing study but also funded his company Direct Genomics on Dec.10 2015. In return, Direct Genomics helped the Hospital conduct advanced genetic testing service and IVF. The Hospital collaborated with Professor He, his university and his company in order to gain public trust and hence advance its own business interests. Scientists and universities are trusted entities. For instance, in one of the Hospital’s advertisements about prenatal gene testing, it declared that it cooperated with the Southern University of Medicine on gene testing for deafness. It also worked with first-class obstetrics and gynecology experts, nutrition experts and nursing team to provide the most perfect guarantee for safe motherhood. Professor Zhou from Southern Medical University was its technical adviser. In addition, the Hospital presented the advertisement as a scholarly article. As many people in China do not understand genetics, they could easily trust these advertisements which are endorsed by so-called genetic experts and senior scientists.
The involvement of the Putian network in Professor He’s study reflects the great capitalistic interest in the genetics industry. For instance, the Hospital advertised for a Better Prenatal and Postnatal Management Plan (you sheng you yu guan li ji hua) among pregnant women. The plan encouraged pregnant women to buy predictive genetic tests for themselves and their newborn baby. The advertisement claimed that genetic tests could avoid more than 30 diseases including tuberculosis, Graves’ disease, kidney cancer and breast cancer and their babies would lead healthy lifestyles according to test results. The Hospital suggested that its genetic testing was the most professional and detailed prenatal testing in the world. The plan cost 50000 RMB (5000GBP). The Hospital designed the plan solely to make money. The messages contained in the advertisement were misleading and the claims were exaggerated. The Hospital created universal needs for genetic testing by increasing anxiety that pregnant women may feel regarding the future of their children and themselves. Furthermore, the charge of the plan was 50000RMB, while normal prenatal check-up without gene testing operated by public hospitals only cost 5000RMB. The average monthly income in Shenzhen in 2019 was 5199 RMB (Salarycalculator, 2019). Therefore, the Hospital only targeted women with high income. Paradoxically, families with inherited genetic diseases who really need the testing might not afford the technology.
To conclude, gene editing babies were created within the context of tech-nationalism and commercialism in China. Ethics of science is compromised by financial motivation and governmental interests. Now the Southern University of Science and Technology has fired Professor He, and Chinese authorities confirmed they would investigate the case. However, the ethical standards of gene editing technology in China remains unsettled.
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