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Genetic engineering and animal-human hybrids: How China is leading a global divide in controversial research

Last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had created the world's first gene-edited human babies to correct genetic defects. This announcement shocked the world at a time when such a practice is illegal in most leading scientific countries. Recently, the American researcher, Juan Carlos Izpizoa Belmonte, revealed that he created the first human-monkey hybrid embryo in China to avoid legal issues in his country

Artificial engineering of humans. Illustration: shutterstock
Artificial engineering of humans. Illustration: shutterstock

By: David Lawrence Postdoctoral Fellow, Newcastle Law School, University of Newcastle

If a scientist wants to conduct groundbreaking but controversial biological research, he should move to China. Last year, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had created the world's first gene-edited human babies to correct genetic defects. This announcement shocked the world at a time when such a practice is illegal in most leading scientific countries. Recently, the American researcher, Juan Carlos Izpizoa Belmonte, revealed that he created the first human-monkey hybrid embryo in China to avoid legal issues in his country.

However, if China is fast becoming the capital of controversial science, it is not alone. More babies produced with the "CRISPR" gene editing technology are now being designed by a scientist in Russia, where another researcher also hopes to perform the world's first human head transplant. Japan also recently lifted its ban on animal-human hybrids.

The world is rapidly moving towards a two-tiered system of innovative medical research, widely divided between countries with minimal regulation and those that refuse to allow anything but the earliest stages of this process. The consequences of this fragmentation may be significant, and may even affect citizens' access to health.

The births of the CRISPR babies in China caused an uproar among the scientific community, which criticized Hu Jinkoi and called for a halt to all CRISPR research in human embryos. In about thirty countries, gene editing of human embryos is already banned outright or at least closely monitored. For example, in the UK only a handful of research groups are given a license to conduct experiments in the field, and certainly not with the aim of bringing an embryo into the world.

But in most countries things are less clear. The Chinese establishment was quick to condemn He's work and declare it illegal, and some commentators have argued that despite appearances, Chinese science is far from unregulated. However, the fact is that he was able to conduct the work without interruption, with evidence suggesting that he even received state funding.

When technology like CRISPR is advancing rapidly, many countries have not had time to develop expertise and form a comprehensive position. As a result, it seems that we cannot avoid a two-tiered system for this kind of research. Countries with developed biotech regulation will be able to adapt more quickly and easily to recent advances and set limits. Other countries will do nothing and effectively allow scientists to continue their research without having to consider the ethical or social implications of their work. This is assuming that all governments want to limit this type of research, but it's also possible that they don't.

We have seen what happens when there is this kind of international disconnection in other biotechnological fields. "Medical tourism" has become a booming sector in the health industry. People travel from all over the world to private clinics that provide - or claim to provide - stem cell treatments that are not available in their home countries. There have been cases of people traveling from the US to Mexico in order to circumvent federal laws and gain access to mitochondrial replacement therapy.

So it is safe to assume that those with the means to do so may try to access gene editing abroad when this is not available in their countries, perhaps to avoid a known hereditary defect that they carry. And as home DNA testing kits become common (though not necessarily accurate), the number of people who want to edit their genomes before having children is likely to increase.
The lack of medical regulations or their flexibility, causes the appearance of charlatan clinics that charge huge sums for what sounds like a miracle cure, but can be, at best, a sugar pill or at worst, an active harmful substance. And perhaps worst of all, regulatory issues may contribute to ruining the reputation of promising developments in medical technologies. The more threatening incidents are attributed to unregulated treatment, the less people will support legitimate medical trials.

This quasi-two-tier system of medical research oversight may also lead to techniques such as gene editing being more culturally acceptable than in other countries. Our society continues to struggle with xenophobia and racism, so we may also find prejudices and legal dilemmas developing for genetically modified humans (not including human-animal hybrids).

Will people born with technologies like CRISPR be allowed to visit or immigrate to countries where their very creation was illegal? Would it be illegal for them to have children and spread their genetically modified genomes? This type of conflict between international human rights legislation and domestic policy has yet to be examined but may lead to serious consequences.

Aggravation of health inequality

On the other side of the fence, if countries with strong regulations move too slowly in approving potentially life-saving or disability-preventing treatments, it could exacerbate health inequities. We already have serious global problems of distributive justice, the ways in which services or technologies are accessible only to the privileged. If a certain disease could be prevented using CRISPR, is it true that someone would have to risk their child developing the disease just because they cannot afford to travel to a country where this practice is legal?

The obvious solution - internationally agreed standards and regulations may be the solution, but unfortunately, we have so far not been able to reach a global consensus on gene editing issues, just like in embryo research. Even if a common agreement can be reached, the development and implementation of acceptable terms flexible enough to cope with the inevitable technological advances will take many years. For now, proposals for a concerted effort to track gene-editing research may be the best thing to do.

It is difficult to predict what can happen in the meantime. But it seems increasingly likely that gene editing and other controversial methods will take place in a variety of supervised and unsupervised circumstances. Unfortunately, little progress may be made until the kind of problems listed above become all too real.

More of the topic in Hayadan:

8 תגובות

  1. Apparently, there are clergymen and philosophers for this.
    Committees should be established as a matter of urgency, which would consist of recognized and accepted religious and intellectuals who would discuss ethical questions on these issues and urgently begin to define moral norms for the use of such technologies in humans. As someone pointed out here, "the train has already started", instead of opposing, a system of regulations should be created with restrictions and penalties if necessary to prevent biological crime.
    The Torah of Israel is such a moral instrument. It also seems that most of the world has adopted its basic moral rules, chief among them, "the sanctity of life" and "the sanctity of man created in the image".
    If I'm not mistaken, according to the Torah, anything that sanctifies human life and does not harm another human life, is permitted and even a mitzvah, (anything that saves one soul) of course in life as in life it may be a slippery slope and an opening to biological and other cruel manipulations but this is life... there is Deal with the issue and not deny its existence.

  2. Hybrid embryos are the future whether you like it or not
    You can't escape it, you can put sticks in the wheels, but it won't help
    The train has already left

  3. Let's do the following thought experiment:
    Subject of the experiment: mother/father of a child with an incurable genetic disease.
    They receive an offer from a hospital in China:
    We will cure the child for a large sum, but the couple can afford it.
    When they arrive they are also asked to sign a document in which they undertake to promote any interest of China or any official Chinese representative. Without the signature the healing will not take place.
    The chance that the couple will not sign the document is zero.
    When he signed, he became a de facto Chinese collaborator and a traitor by definition.
    Failure to do such research in Western countries is collective suicide. There is a moral and scientific obligation to invest as much as possible in this issue.

  4. It still does not solve the accumulated damages in the brain itself over the years. Like any other organ in the body, the brain accumulates damage over the years, for example mutations that will lead to dysfunction or cancer.
    It is more relevant to people whose body is damaged and whose brain is normal, but limited to the years that the brain can function normally

  5. In China, anyone can buy a liver, heart, kidney and more from a regime opponent for a relatively small amount. Of course, on the condition that there is tissue matching, but this was checked in advance for all opponents of the regime even before the "trial". This is the reason for the riots in Hong Kong - the plan to transfer regime opponents to trial in China itself. So there are probably those who are planning the possibility of an ultimate organ transplant: take a human embryo, convert all the tissue characteristics to the exact match of the buyer, implant the embryo, let it be born and grow a little, then harvest the organ and transplant. It will take a year - two years (it is impossible to transplant an organ that is too small). All this because creating a cloned embryo from the patient's cell is not yet possible for humans, too complicated. Expect a dictator like Xi to live 200 years in this way, and in any case his term has already been extended for his entire life. A little guess: Shai himself and several other heads of the regime have already started the process of preparing for any need for organs.

  6. The most interesting thing that is said here is the possibility of a head transplant or a brain transplant that actually means eternal life.
    An old and sick affluent person could transplant his head or just his brain into a young body and live "again".
    Interesting world!
    Please respond gently
    Yehuda

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