CRISPRcon 2020 Revisited: Spotlighting Gene Editing in China

After highlighting underrepresented viewpoints and narratives in gene editing in its first two weeks, CRISPRcon 2020 shifted the focus in its third week to exploring the hope and hype of the technology. The first discussion for the “Hope and Hype” theme examined trends in science and governance approaches in health and agricultural sectors in China, and the second explored how potential benefits in agriculture can be prioritized and assessed.

The first panel on Sept. 29 examined how gene editing research and governance is progressing in China and how these trends affect research and governance in the rest of the world. The panelists discussed what new gene editing products are being developed by Chinese scientists and which ones are drawing the most attention. Larry Au, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University, highlighted the work being done in the medical field, specifically mentioning oncology research, including cancers and diseases that have a higher incidence in China but are often ignored by Western researchers.

“I think one of the major drivers would be the policy emphasis shift toward chronic disease management,” said Au. “That [emphasis is] recognized as perhaps one of the after-effects of modernization and urbanization in China. A lot of these diseases have crept up.”

Judy Wang, senior consultant at Corteva AgriScience, shared her expertise related to gene editing innovations in agriculture. Wang explained that Chinese scientists are working to enhance crop yield and quality, improve disease resistance, increase herbicide tolerance, accelerate the breeding process, and raise stress tolerance.

The case of He Jiankui, who in 2018 announced he had helped produce babies with heritable genome edits and was later sentenced to three years in prison, was a key topic of conversation. The discussion focused on the case’s impact on research and perception of gene editing. The Chinese science community unified in public condemnation of the He Jiankui’s actions, which helped shaped the government’s and public’s perception of the event.

“After the news broke, in the Chinese bioethics community…there was a broad pushback against this unethical behavior. So, we should not view He Jiankui as an individual representing the Chinese scientific community,” said Yangyang Cheng, a particle physicist, writer, and postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University.

Au remarked that the condemnation from the scientific community was key in ensuring that the Chinese public understanding that Jiankui’s actions were inappropriate and should not be permitted. It also helped policy makers understand that those actions should not be allowed. Wang remarked that one fallout from the incident was that government is now taking a more cautious approach to gene editing in agriculture. It also enhanced a negative public perception of gene edited crops.

“In China, the public perception negatively impacted the progress of biotech crops and transgenic crops. The progress of gene editing, particularly after the He Jiankui incident, there were many people who were against biotech and they now change to move against the gene editing product,” said Wang.

In addition to  discussion on public perception of gene editing in China, the panelists commented on potential regulations for gene edited crops, public engagement on genome editing, conducting survey research and social science on gene editing in China, the uneven governance landscape in China, and the contrast of attitudes toward technology in health and the technology of food. Watch the full panel discussion below.