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The long shadow of a CRISPR scandal

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Science  02 Aug 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6452, pp. 436
DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6452.436

He Jiankui's controversial gene-editing experiment brought intense scrutiny to CRISPR scientists in China, and they're outraged.


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As He Jiankui strode to the podium at last year's summit on human genome editing in Hong Kong, China, more than 1 million people watched online.

PHOTO: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In the months after He Jiankui's widely condemned embryo editing went public, Chinese researchers using the genome editor CRISPR reeled with embarrassment, outrage, and fear of unwarranted scrutiny and criticism of their own work. Some see He as a nobody in the country's CRISPR community who sullied their whole field. “Many Chinese scientists got angry about [He],” says Deng Hongkui, a stem cell researcher at Peking University in Beijing. “Many of us got training in Western countries, and we know the international standards.”

An acute concern is that the scandal will besmirch China's many studies of CRISPR medical treatments that involve altering the DNA of adult somatic cells, such as skin, neurons, and muscles. Edits to those cells, unlike the germline cells in He's embryo experiments, are not passed to future generations. Many people, Deng says, don't understand the difference between germline and somatic cell work. “They just hear ‘genome editing,’” Deng says. He used CRISPR to make blood-forming stem cells resistant to HIV, and then gave them to an HIV-infected patient who also had leukemia and needed the transplant to battle that disease.

Wang Haoyi, a developmental biologist at the Institute of Zoology in Beijing, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), resents the image He reinforced of Chinese research as the Wild West. “All the news is that Chinese scientists did this, not that it's a single person—it's like they're crazy people,” says Wang, who did pioneering CRISPR mouse studies in a U.S. lab.

Yang Hui, who collaborated with Wang on those mouse studies and now is at CAS's Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, says the day after the news broke about the gene-edited babies, he took the unusual step of publicly posting a paper under review at Science. It showed that a CRISPR variant called a base editor had substantial, unexpected off-target effects. “We want foreign people to know Chinese scientists also do some good stuff,” Yang says. “We want to make safer gene-editing tools for patients.”

The He “incident” has forced Chinese researchers to think twice about future projects. “People aren't daring to do some CRISPR stuff because they don't want to be criticized,” says Chen Jia, who studies DNA repair at Shanghai Tech University. Chen, who contributed a CRISPR tool used in a study with human embryos never intended for implantation—one of nine such published studies done in China to date—says he would be hesitant to join a similar project today. Even though Chen only provided the gene-editing tool, the He fallout “changes things.”

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