Human progress has long been tied to the progress of scientific research.
For better or worse, major scientific discoveries have made certain feats of engineering possible. From the inner workings of electricity to the mechanism of the atom bomb, science has pushed humanity forward.
In one area, however, science has to walk a very fine line: the manipulation of human genetics. The subjects of cloning and genetic modification have been staples in science-fiction for decades. A lot of that fiction has been foreboding. Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, follows the lives of children created to be farmed for organs.
This is understandable, as the potential implications of control over the very makeup of human beings are endless. However, there is also a tremendous amount of optimism when it comes to gene editing, both in fiction and in the scientific community.
That optimism is always tempered by the regulations around genome editing. These regulations are necessary, as it can involve experimenting on living people (or people who are soon to be living). That said, different regulatory bodies draw the line in differing places, and this is most obvious when comparing China and the United States.
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Different approaches to gene editing
This difference can be seen quite poignantly in how each nation has dealt with the CRISPR-baby scandal. If you are unfamiliar with the story, a Chinese geneticist named He Jiankui manipulated the genomes in embryos which were used to produce babies. His interference came in the supposed disabling of a gene that allows HIV to enter cells.
It is important to point out that He Jiankui was roundly criticised, even by Chinese authorities. He was later sentenced to 3 years in jail and a 3 million yuan fine. However, his experiment would likely have never seen the light of day in the US.
He Jiankui did not hide what he was doing and told a number of scientists. Many of these scientists were perturbed, but partly because of the absence of a global oversight body and the murkiness of regulations in China, they did not report him.
There is no doubt that brazenly going forward with such a reckless experiment was a dangerous move on He’s part. The consequences He is facing are necessary and will hopefully prevent others from taking similar chances.
But that does not mean genetic editing itself is a bad thing. It is more than likely that gene editing will become normalised within the next couple of decades. The possibility of using gene editing to preemptively strengthen a new generation against disease is exciting. At some point, parents who choose not to take such measures might be seen as the reckless ones.
Because China is more lenient when it comes to genome editing, it will have the advantage over the US. In an ideal world, cooperation is better than competition, but there are tremendous benefits in store for the country which develops methodology and strategies first.
The good news is that people are becoming more open to the possibilities in the world of genetics.
Budding interest in genetics
Over the past few years, we have seen the rise of DNA testing kit companies. People send their DNA off to these companies to find out about their ancestry as well as potential vulnerabilities to certain illnesses. You can compare DNA kits to see what different companies test for.
Genetic test kits have made more people aware of how DNA works and what we can learn from it. It also exposes them to how it can possibly be manipulated for the better. Tens of millions of people have been interested enough to pay for these DNA kits. And as these companies have gathered more and more DNA data from individuals around the world, big corporations have shown interest.
On a simple level, DNA provides a potential way to market to people even more specifically. However, businesses and researchers have more exciting projects that data from genetic kits could make possible.
These include health products that cater to people based on their genetic needs. Leisure products to provide optimal pleasure based on a person’s DNA. Even the possibility of using DNA to connect people to their government identity profile, making banking, travel, and work easier to facilitate.
Over the next few years, China can similarly leverage the data coming from DNA tests to improve the research process when it comes to gene editing. There is huge potential, and the reality is that gene editing is an inevitability whether we like it or not. The key now is to find the right balance of regulation and discovery.
We may see the scientific world coming together in this field, but for now it is Chinese scientists who have the edge, with the ability to conduct research in a way that US scientists cannot.