Why Crispr is the new Sputnik.
Forget space exploration, forget military power or economics. Gene editing is the new Mcguffin for world domination.
While the arms race, and especially the development of the hydrogen bomb, were in the focus during the original cold war, the new technological combat will emerge in the form of a fierce competition for genetic superiority.
Although developed by American scientists, the Chinese picked up rapidly on this incredible new development in gene editing technology, and just ran with it. While the rest of the scientific world stands frozen on the sidelines with its shoelaces untied, the chinese produce one groundbreaking study after the other.
In November 2016, the UK has given researchers at the Francis Crick Institute permission to use the newest gene editing technology, called Crispr, in early-stage human embryos. While the team under Dr. Kathy Nikaian merely used the technology to scan the genetic code of discarded IVF embryo cells, chinese scientists actually manipulated viable human ebryo genes.
What seems as a major breakthrough, and taboo for, many in the US and Europe, is becoming the norm in the land of the middle.
In March 2017, chinese geneticists from the University of Guangzhou announced the first successfully corrected genetic defects in viable embryos. Although the success rate isn’t really high, their seem to be a significant difference between results in viable contra non viable embryos. Dr Luo Tang said ” The use of non viable genetically abnormal cells didn’t give a true picture of the state of the technology.”
The difference between viable and non viable human ebryo cells seem to be crucial for the success rate of eliminating mutations and defects from the human genome. Non viable cells are embryos which develop from an egg fertilized by two sperm cells and are therefore not able to grow to a complete human being.
This is yet another reason why many countries in the west might loose this race, due to the ethical restrains in using cells which would allow for an accurate representation of the reality of gene editing.
Each new study brings China one step closer, to maybe the biggest scientific breakthrough since the splitting of the atom.
“Germline editing is going to happen and to think otherwise is naive,” says University of Utah’s Dana Carroll. “And as to research on human embryos, whether or not it’s happening in the US anytime soon, elsewhere in the world it’s already started.”
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., concludes that trials using gene editing technology “might be permitted, but only after more research” on risks and benefits.
“They have closed the door to the vast majority of germline applications and left it open for a very small, well-defined subset. That’s not unreasonable in my opinion,” said genome researcher Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Even though it is the official position of chinese scientists to ban any implantation of genetic modified embryos in women, the range of experimental freedom on germline and adult cells, gave them more than just a head start over the last couple of years.
Due to cultural differences between China and the so called west, this rift will widen over the next couple of years, and grant China an advantage, which might be impossible to catch up with.
While in the U.S. and Europe there is constant debate on whether embryos have human rights, in China this isn’t even part of the discussion. “According to Confucius, human being is only after birth.” said bioethicist Renzong Qiu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Playing along, and making themselves subject to international regulations was never part of the chinese M.O.. Climate change and the restriction of green house gases is only one example where China went for years against international consensus. And, if they even should as a sovereign country, is another question for another debate.
And while debates are been held and moratoriums declared, Chinas gene editing machine produces on breakthrough after the other.
In Oktober 2016 the Sichuan University in Chengdu received approval to begin the treatment on an actual human being suffering from lung cancer, after only six months of review. “To get the same thing approved in the US would take dramatically longer,” says Paul Knoepfler, stem cell researcher at UC Davis.
But China isn’t the only player on the board who crosses the US’s and Europe’s unilateral declared line in the sand.
Ephrat Levy-Lahad, a cancer researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that Israel is likely to welcome clinical use of genetically modified embryos. The government, which encourages large families, already pays for parents using in vitro fertilization to screen their embryos for genetic mutations — a technique known as Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, which is simpler than genome editing and can prevent many, but not all, inherited disorders.
If the UK, Europe and the USA don’t wake up soon, they’ll might need to grow a third leg in the arms race for scientific relevance.