Sunday , October 2 2022

Genetic Chinese researchers retained much of their secret work


SHENZHEN, China – The Chinese scientist, who says he helped make the world's first redirected infant, weakened from a traditional career path and retained much of his research secretly in pursuit of a larger target story.

Han Jiankui's outsided ambitions began to take shape in 2016, the year after another team of Chinese researchers drew global debates with the revelation that they had changed the DNA of human embryos in the lab. He soon decided to push on the limits of medical ethics.

The Chinese born, american-educated scientist once again trusted his former advisor from Stanford University's interest in reborn children. He told The Associated Press last month that he had been working on the experiment for more than two years – a period where he himself concealed information from any medical staff involved in research, as apparently from his own bosses.

He took advantage of the loosely formulated and irregularly applied rules and generous funding available in China, in some cases, also local protocols and possibly laws.

"The huge ambition in China, the desire to be the first, collides with the desire to create and enforce standards," said Jing-Bao Nie, an expert in Chinese bioethics at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

On the eve of a Hong Kong international renegotiation meeting, the 34-year-old researcher stunned the world by claiming that he had used the powerful CRISPR rediger tool to change the DNA of twin girls born earlier this month. His claim could not be independently confirmed, and it has not been published in a journal, but it promptly revolted from both researchers and regulators.

Main researchers in China and globally said that the experiment should never have been tested.

"They chose to shorten the entire process. They went rogue," says Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania Editing Expert.

China's state transmitter, CCTV, reported Tuesday that he can be investigated by the Ministry of Science and Technology if birth confirmed.

His career path did not follow the expected script. He did not publish most of his previous research on modification of mice and monkey DNA, as most researchers would have done. And the way he advanced his latest study contained dubious decisions about confidentiality and medical ethics.

"If you are going to do something this controversial and this early, and you want to be the leader of this movement, you want to do it in an exemplary way," says Dr. Eric Topol, Head of Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.

He, who says his parents were farmers, was born in 1984 in southern China. At that time, the country only emerged from the isolation of the Mao era, and the average annual income was only $ 300. Phones were rare. Many villages were not yet connected by paved roads.

Initially, he followed a common path for researchers in his generation. After graduating from the University of Science and Technology in China, he moved to the United States for doctoral studies.

There he served a Ph.D. in biophysics from Rice University in 2010, spent one year as postdoctoral student at Stanford. His Stanford Adviser, Stephen Quake, described him as "super light" and "in the forefront of trying to apply new technology to biology."

In 2012, he returned to China to record a post at the Southern University of Science and Technology – an institute opened just one year earlier and partly financed by the government of Shenzhen, a southern Chinese city known for its technology companies.

"He was really interested in the concept of human rendering" and what situation would be appropriate, Quake said, recalling one of his visits. Quake gave feedback, but did not supervise the study.

His research could not have been carried out legally in the United States or in most of Europe.

China has banned human cloning for reproduction. In 2003, the Ministry of Health issued a guideline for in vitro clinics that prevent "clinical trials that violate ethical or moral principles".

The young scientist saw this ambiguity as an opportunity. Sometimes researchers – Chinese or foreign – who can not get funding or permission for unconventional projects in the US or Europe can find financial support and openings in China.

Ren Xiaoping, a surgeon who aims to perform the first human transplant, worked for many years at American hospitals but returned to China because a medical institute in his hometown of Shenyang agreed to support his research.

Guoping Feng, neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working with a research facility in Guangdong province where he associates genetically engineered monkeys with heart disease to study the development of autism-like symptoms. China has fewer restrictions on the use of lab animals.

In 2016 he went out to an AIDS advocacy group in Beijing to help him recruit potential participants in the study – couples trying to get children where the man was HIV positive. There are already well-tested ways to protect against transmission of the AIDS virus in IVF. Instead, his goal was to write about DNA before birth to make children less prone to HIV after they were born.

Other researchers have tested similar remediation methods on cells in a labyrinth to prevent hereditary diseases, but do not lead to live births.

For his CRISPR work, he did not seek prior approval from federal regulatory authorities. He listed his study in an online register of Chinese clinical trials on November 8 – long after it began.

His lab skirted the standards that many of his Chinese comrades maintain.

For example, the lab did not inform all medical staff who directly assisted the expected couples that the study involved redirection. They believed that they helped with standard IVF attempts, with a further step to mapping the genomes, did not manipulate the embryo, according to one of the embryos participating in research Qin Jinzhou.

The patient's consent form referred to the study immediately as an "AIDS-vaccine development" program.

He also sought consultation from an ethics committee outside the hospitals involved in research. Lin Zhitong, founder of Shenzhen Harmonicare Women & Children's Hospital, told AP in October that his hospital's ethics committee advised him, but had no other involvement.

Keeping information from medical staff on redecoration was acceptable because some fertility doctors may not agree to help HIV-positive couples, Lin said, who also said he has not worked as a doctor or researcher but comes from a family of hospital property developers.

Deceiving or working around all participants in the study is not standard practice in China, "and it is contrary to the broad spirit of informed consent," says Nie, bioetics expert. "In some cases, ethics committees are only rubber stamps."

After he claims, Harmonicare released a statement condemning human redemption and announced a study of some ties with his lab.

The Shenzhen researcher released some findings in YouTube videos. He announced his performance in English, not Chinese.

"He wanted to attract attention in the international community. Now he got what he really wanted," said not.

His own university was held in the dark. Southern University of Science and Technology said in a statement that it was not informed about his work, and that it "seriously violated academic ethics and standards".

His research team included his former adviser, physics professor Michael Deem, who is on the scientific advisory boards in that he is two genetics companies. Rice said it has launched a survey of Deem's commitment.

In an interview last month at his laboratory in Shenzhen, he said that redirected children were inevitable. He wanted to be first.

"There will be somebody, somebody, who does this," he said. "If it's not me, I'm someone else."

Follow Christina Larson on Twitter .

AP Chief Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione in Hong Kong, scientist Fu Ting and video reporter Emily Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.

This Associated Press series was produced in collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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