CRISPR-Cas9 furor highlights explosive growth of gene editing in China

The recent controversy over the use of CRISPR-Cas9 tech by a Chinese research group in a failed attempt to reengineer the DNA of a human embryo highlighted the explosive growth of China's discovery work in biotech in general--and gene editing in particular--over the last few years. And with the Chinese government devoting major resources to the development of new labs, outside analysts expect that China will emerge as a major player in gene editing--a prospect that seems to raise fears as wells as fascination.

According to a report from Thomson Reuters, roughly a fifth of the 518 families of gene editing patents over the past decade has gone to Chinese research groups. And the recent emergence of CRISPR-Cas9, which has been widely heralded as a simple and effective tool for gene editing, is expected to fuel even more rapid growth in the field--raising some serious concerns for bioethicists worried by the prospect of unmonitored experiments with embryos.

Those concerns have spurred a host of warnings aimed at reining in gene editing that reach straight to the White House, but may not have much effect in China.

Referring to top research institutions in China, University of Sussex professor James Wilsdon told Reuters that "the level of available resources is incredible in terms of the freedom, the flexibility that gives key leading Chinese scientists to move very, very fast on a given research track if a new opportunity arises."

CRISPR CEO Rodger Novak

But Wilsdon adds that while many people in his field view China as a kind of "Wild East" when it comes to research, "there are intense debates within the Chinese system about bioethics." 

"The Chinese could, over time, play a very significant role in this game as they have a very entrepreneurial attitude--much more so than in parts of Europe," said Rodger Novak, CEO of CRISPR Therapeutics, one of the upstarts in the field which is building a lab for its work in Cambridge, MA.

Chinese scientists, meanwhile, are aiming high.

"We want findings that can change the world," Zhejiang University Professor Guoji Guo tells Reuters.

- here's the story from Reuters

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