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.”
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.
“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.