The Chinese Minister of Education has asked universities to inspect all research on genome editing and submit their reports to the government by the end of the year. They must prove that this work does not exceed ethical limits (see Genetically modified babies in China: “an ethical failure” and GMO babies: guinea pigs against their will).
The instruction was given one month after researcher He Jiankui announced that he had edited the genes of twins at the embryo stage (see China: birth of two genetically modified babies). The Minister’s memo, which was posted on the websites of several universities last Thursday, asks institutions to focus their “self-inspection” on genome editing programmes since 2013. Universities were asked to pay particular attention to the work on germline editing carried out jointly with affiliated hospitals and international organisations. Some Western universities and companies circumvent laws by conducting their research in countries where ethical standards are less stringent. Chinese universities must verify that ethical limits and laws have been respected, submit programme details and suggest how to boost life sciences and medical ethics in higher education.
Chinese researchers have been ambitious in the experimental use of CRISPR, a genome editing tool that allows DNA to be altered relatively easily, and which the researcher used in his trial. While the technique was being perfected in the United States in 2012, they were the first to use it successively on monkeys, to test it on human embryos in the laboratory without intending to implant them for the birth of a baby (see CRISPR: recent Chinese publication reveals tests on human embryos;; Chinese researchers cross the red line once again and genetically modify human embryos; China stubbornly intends to continue the genetic handling of human embryos; Genetic modifications of human embryos: a symbolic gap that requires an ethical leap), and to use it in adults with cancer (see CRISPR: “premature” clinical trials in China?).
The Chinese government believes that He Jiankui had overstepped the 2003 law which regulates in-vitro fertilisation and prohibits the handling of embryos for reproductive purposes. However, Chinese legislation has relatively little to say on genome editing in adult humans, as changes do not affect future generations. In this area, only “rigorous supervision” of medical institutions is mandatory.
To date, the researcher has still not provided evidence that the twins with modified genomes were actually born. He has, however, submitted data in support of his statements. He is currently being held in a small university guesthouse in the southern city of Shenzhen, where he is guarded by a dozen unidentified men.