China will become the new Silicon Valley (paradise) for genetic engineering and gene therapies. Gene Valley or the Island of Dr. Moureu, who knows?. The reason? Very simple: China, unhampered by rules, races ahead in gene-editing trials.
Although the technology behind the current surge of CRISPR companies, has been mainly developed in the US and EU, trials on humans have been relatively slow to develop due to concerns over the potential risks. Scientists in the field are concerned that the treatment may cause unintended mutations or may not work at all. For example, in a paper(1) published in 2015, “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification”, George Church and Jennifer Doudna, two scientists with financial interests in two of the companies leading the race, Editas Medicine and intellia Therapeutics, say that a framework for open discourse on the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to manipulate the human genome is urgently needed.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports that so far in China, at least 86 people have had their genes edited, and there is evidence of at least 11 Chinese clinical trials using CRISPR. One of those trials began a year earlier than previously reported, in 2015.
The Chinese ministry of health has to approve all gene-therapy clinical trials in China, but these regulations appear relatively relaxed. According to the WSJ, at Hangzhou Cancer Hospital, for example, a proposal to test a cancer treatment that modifies patients’ immune cells was approved in a single afternoon, One member of the hospital’s approval committee told the WSJ that she did not really understand the science laid out for her in a 100-page document, but was told that the side effects were mild. This was enough for her to give it the go-ahead. (“Chinese scientists used Crispr gene editing on 86 human patients”)
There are no scientific papers about these experiments yet, but according to the WSJ, doctors say some patients have improved. (There have also been at least 15 deaths, but only about half of them were reportedly related to the gene therapy itself.)
The widespread adoption of a new promising technology usually demands a lot more than talent. It needs heroes and, very likely, also martyrs. To make the current digital revolution possible, it was necessary a country and a region able to experiment and challenge the rules: incumbents, regulations and social etiquette. US capitalism has proved to be very good at doing this.
However, it seems that to make the anticipated genetic revolution happen, we’ll need to go the extra mile, and draw upon the Dr. Moreau’s and Victor Frankenstein’s of this world. And you know what? Maybe neither EU nor US citizens have the stomach for what it’ll take.
Baltimore, David, Paul Berg, Michael Botchan, Dana Carroll, R. Alta Charo, George Church, Jacob E. Corn, et al. 2015. ‘A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Gene Modification’. Science 348 (6230):36–38. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aab1028.
Featured Image: The island of doctor Moreau by blackiss