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Gene Editing: Chinese Scientists are Losing Track of Patients Whose DNA They Altered

With CRISPR-Cas9, scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body.

Shantanu David | News18.com

Updated:December 29, 2018, 12:20 PM IST
Gene Editing: Chinese Scientists are Losing Track of Patients Whose DNA They Altered
Scientist He Jiankui shows "The Human Genome", a book he edited, at his company Direct Genomics in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China August 4, 2016.

The Chinese may be leading the race when it comes to gene-editing, whether surreptitiously or not, but apparently they aren't very keen in tracking the score. Thanks to somatic gene therapies being legal in China -- and its research being monitored by a set of laws that are embryonic at best -- scientists treating cancer patients, with en vogue CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, haven't been as careful as they should have been when it came to actually tracking the results of these revolutionary types of therapy.

According to an article published by the Wall Street Journal, at least one of these trials didn't bother to keep track of its patients and didn't conduct any follow-up tests on them. This is raising red flags for some Western scientists, who say that patients should keep being monitored for many years, following their treatment.

The WSJ quoted Jennifer Doudna, from the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-inventor of CRISPR as saying, “Since we do not fully understand the human genome and are still developing knowledge of [CRISPR-Cas9 and related technologies], we need to monitor the intended and unintended consequences over the lifespan of patients.”

In recent years scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool, called CRISPR-cas9, makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that's causing problems.

It's only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person. This is what is known as somatic gene therapy and is legal in China, as well as the US.

On the other hand, human germline gene editing is not yet legal anywhere in the world. Germline gene editing comprises of making changes in an embryo's DNA to alter or enhance actual traits, resulting in the dreaded 'designer baby' boom.

This lapse of oversight by Chinese authoritites on the nascent gene-editing industry burgeoning within their borders comes on the heels of another shocker from the region just over a month ago, when a Chinese researcher claimed that he helped make the world's first genetically-edited babies, a pair of twin girls, whose DNA he said he altered with the very same CRISPR-Cas9 tool.

There is no independent confirmation of the researcher's claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. The researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far.

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