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Leaps and boundaries: The rise of China as a science superpower

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22.06.2019

Monkey A6 is not having a good time of it. The male macaque is being videoed by researchers and has retreated to the corner of his steel cage, burying his head in his hands.

The unfortunate primate is the subject of an experiment that has removed a gene called BMAL1, which makes him prone to the monkey version of human psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety.

Replay

“Monkey A6 exhibited particularly strong fear and anxiety, showing clear avoidance of the care personnel,” reports an article detailing the experiment.

The study, published by Chinese researchers in January, has two features that are putting Chinese science in the spotlight like never before.

First, it is right at the cutting edge of biomedicine.

The macaque was one of five cloned from a single monkey, gene-edited to lack BMAL1, the first time this has been done. In fact, China is the only country to have cloned primates at all, announcing the birth of identical long-tailed macaques Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua in January 2018.

Second, the experiment hovers near a precarious ethical line that many think shouldn’t be crossed. British professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics Andrew Knight called it “disturbing news”.

He Jiankui at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province. His claim to have genetically edited babies has made him a lightning rod for ethics concerns.Credit:AP

But it also comes hot on the heels of November’s “CRISPR baby scandal”, in which Chinese scientist He Jiankui used the gene-splicing technology to create the world’s first genetically modified humans, twins Lulu and Nana. His actions sparked a global outcry and were labelled by the World Health Organisation as “irresponsible”.

An analysis in the journal Nature in June found the gene tweak, aimed at making the twins resistant to HIV, may have shortened their life expectancy.

Such advances are raising troubling questions. Is China breaking ethical rules to become a science superpower and, in the process, turning into what some have dubbed the biomedical “Wild East”? More worrying still, might the West need to relax its own rules to keep up?

Jing-Bao Nie is a professor of Bioethics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and was co-signatory to a March article in Nature that called for a global moratorium on the making of babies from gene-edited embryos in the wake of the He scandal.

Jing-Bao Nie, professor of bioethics at the University of Otago in New Zealand.Credit:Graham Warman

Nie has been a vocal critic of He in US ethics journal The Hastings Center Report. But in a Skype interview, he is quick to point out that more than 100 Chinese researchers joined the world in condemning He’s actions.

Nie also says the three main Chinese philosophical traditions - Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism - place ethical limits, to varying degrees, on the kind of research that can be done with animals.

“There is a kind of assumption that Chinese culture somehow gives a green light to those kinds of activities,” Nie says. “Those are really often misconceptions.”

But Nie confirms there are factors that might pull research ethics down a few rungs in China.

“There is a nationwide push for China to become a superpower in science and technology. The government’s efforts could benefit Chinese people and humankind greatly, but in time ethics and moral considerations may become secondary,” he says.

That push to science superstardom is yielding dividends. Last year China overtook the US as the world’s largest producer of scientific papers. And it is propelled, says Nie, by a number of key traits in Chinese culture.

Scientism, a veneration of science as key to social progress, is widespread.........

© Brisbane Times