Experts predict that China is on the path toward creating genetically enhanced humans.
Thanks to a new DNA editing technique, the process to genetically engineer humans has been made simpler and inexpensive.
The new process called CRISPR-Cas 9 or “Clustered Regularly Inter-Spaced Palindropic Repeats,” is a form of gene editing. It basically allows scientists to target an enzyme of a specific region in the body and make precise cuts to “turn off” specific genes in the genome. This editing technique changes the DNA.
China was the first country to experiment on about-to-be-discarded abnormal embryos using the CRISR-Cas-9 process for the blood disorder Thalassaemia. This experiment created fears of them using the process on healthy embryos to change traits like appearance, intelligence, athletic prowess and even moral reasoning. Thus, creating “designer babies.”
So far, China has denied conducting “designer baby” research. However, China is the first in the world to use the technique to fight disease.
However, in 2014, a Shenzen-based firm mapped out the genes of mathematical geniuses in the hope of screening an embryo to select the smartest one.
This month, scientists in China are planning to conduct the first human trials by editing a gene that causes incurable, treatment-resistant lung disease, using the CRISPR-CAS 9.
Oncologists at Sichuan University’s West China Hospital in Chengdu have been given governmental permission to begin the process. The scientists are to extract T-cells from the blood of trial participants. A gene coding for the PD-9 protein DNA will be cut using CRISPR-Cas 9. A small portion of the gene is to be removed, causing the T-cells to lose some of their regulation. They will stop attacking healthy cells in the body. The edited cells will be multiplied and injected back into the patients with the hopes the injected cells will hone in on the cancer cells and destroy them. Only the patient’s immune system T-cells will be used, not affecting gamete cells that could be passed down through offspring.
Oddly enough, the United States is embarking on a similar scientific study in December. In January of this year, the National Institute of Health approved the use of gene editing technology, the CRISPR-Cas 9 technique in human cells. To be conduced at the University Of Pennsylvania, the study will involve eight subjects with melanoma, sarcoma and myeloma.
Neither of these current studies involve genetics. Both are being conducted use laboratory-altered cells to infuse back into the patients. The eventual goal is to remove genetic mutations for incurable diseases. The fear is where this research may lead.
At the June 29, 2015, at the PCMA Global Medical Meetings Summit in Scotland, scientists raised the alarm that such research could lead to genetic engineering, targeting China as leading the way in the future.
First, the Chinese government, according to China’s Bureau of Statistics, spends $190 billion on scientific research and development.
Peter Agre, Nobel laureate, says,
These days, if you pick up a biology journal, the list of authors invariably contains one or many Chinese names and often many of them are leading authors.
Second, China, as well as India, hasn’t any restrictions on such research. They have some guidelines and recommendations but no laws forbidding the altering of genes. Europe, Canada and Australia forbid the process. The United States, though lacking restrictions on gene editing makes it difficult to pursue. Most grants funding research are from the government with restrictions.
Huso Yi, director of research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Center for Bioethics says,
I don’t think China wants to take a moratorium. People are saying they can’t stop the train of mainland China genetics because it’s going too fast.
Third, there are cultural differences between China and the West.
Deng Rui, medical ethicist at Shanxi Medical University says,
Confucian thinking says that someone becomes a person after they are born. That is different from the United States or other countries with a Christian influence, where because of religion they may feel research on embryos is not okay.
Zhai Xiaomei, member of China’s National Medical Ethical Committee and professor at Peking Union Medical College adds,
Inside China, there are people who are opposed to international standards, citing cultural differences. This force is actually quite powerful sometimes.
Only the future will tell how far this new gene-altering process or other versions of it will lead.