An assertion by a Chinese scientist that he created the world's first genetically-engineered children has cast a glance at critics who say there are regular lax controls and ethical standards behind a series of biomedical discoveries in China.
University professor He Jiankui said on Sunday that twin girls DNA was modified to prevent them from confronting HIV, but his allegations provoked a fierce reaction from the scientific community that not only questioned the discovery but he also questioned his morality.
China is trying to become a leader in genetic research and cloning, making it face to face even as others hesitate on ethical issues.
The scientists in the country were the first to make the gene on human embryos in 2015, although with mixed results, the British magazine Nature reported in 2017. Earlier this year, Chinese scientists discovered monkeys that were cloned using the same the technique that produced the Dolly Sheep twenty years ago.
While the procedure could boost medical research in the field of human disease, it also raised ethical questions about how close the scientists had one day cloning people.
– "head transplant" –
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero sparked controversy last year when he claimed to have performed the world's first head transplant on a corpse at a Chinese hospital, the Global Times reported at the time, although other researchers have called his exaggerated claims.
Sunday He, who was educated at Stanford University, announced in a YouTube video that he used CRISPR, a technique that allows scientists to remove and replace a precision component to modify the twin DNA.
The tool has not been used in human studies in the United States, although Chinese doctors use it to treat cancer patients.
Qiu Renzong, the former vice president of the Chinese Health Ministry's ethics committee, accused him of obtaining a "fraudulent" ethical review by going to another hospital for examination, unlike getting his own university approval, adding that it destroys the reputation of people science in China.
Qiu said that a lack of regulation means that scientists often do not face penalties because they are only required to comply with the rules of their institutions, which does not provide for punishment for misconduct.
"People say the ministry is teeth-free, it can not bite people, so we try to offer our teeth to the head of the ministry so they can bite people when people break the rules," he told reporters in English at a gene-confertion conference in Hong Kong.
"The continent is very protective of the scientists, if you make a small mistake, this is the end, there is no punishment. I suggest that they be punished," he added.
– "Crazy" experiment
With a skeptical scholarship community waiting for evidence of He's claims, he expects the scientist to speak on Wednesday and Thursday at the same Hong Kong conference.
He, working in a laboratory in the Chinese city of Shenzhen in southern China, also faces control of the continent, the National Health Commission ordering a case investigation.
On Tuesday, the Shenzhen Harmonicare Women's and Children's Hospital said in a statement that he suspected that the signature on a document that approved the experiment, especially adherence to ethical standards, was falsified and that he asked the police to investigate.
A group of 122 Chinese scientists signed a joint statement naming the "crazy" experiment and said it was unfair to other scientists who are in the "moral line".
The South University of Science and Technology, where he works, said he was on unpaid leave in February, and his research is a "serious violation of academic ethics and norms."
An opinion from the Shenzhen Medical Ethics Authority stated that all medical organizations need to establish an ethical evaluation committee before conducting biomedical research on people, and the ethics committee of the involved hospital has not completed its registration so as necessary.
He claimed his research in another video, saying he was trying to help families with genetic diseases.
"We believe that ethics is on our side of history. Look at Louise Brown in 1970. The same fears and criticism are being repeated now," he said, referring to the first person born through in vitro fertilization.
– 1 billion dollars industry –
China has the world's second largest genomics market, according to UBS. Beijing-based CCID Consulting estimates that the market value will triple close to 7.2 billion yuan ($ 1 billion) in 2017 to 18.3 billion yuan ($ 2.6 billion) by 2022.
More liberal regulations have allowed China to advance in the field of biomedicine, said Michael Donovan, founder of Veraptus, a biotech company in China.
But other factors, such as a larger population that offers a larger group of potential patients, as well as regulatory support from the government have also played a role, said Donovan.
"In many industries, the regulatory stance is that if there are no laws for it, then they can continue with caution," he added.
"And that's the blurred area where genes are being edited."
While some hospitals can approve certain procedures without going to a national approval body, it was "very strange" that he did not get a link to a national authority for such an experiment, said Donovan.
"From the ethical point of view, you do not have the religious pool that we do in the United States," he said. "But it's still life, so people are still concerned about going faster with that."