China vs. the West: Who Will Lead the Way in Embryo Editing Research?
Junjiu Huang and his team performed a miracle. A few miracles, actually. The researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China used the precise new DNA editing tool called CRISPR-CAS9 to edit a human embryo, replacing a single base. In doing so, they edited out beta-thalassemia, a blood disorder that reduces the production of hemoglobin, which can result in pale skin, fatigue, higher risk of blood clots, and other symptoms.
The race is on, and it's one everyone is going to try to win.
Huang's group, which did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story, injected 86 embryos and observed them for 48 hours. After that period -- a time long enough for CRISPR to split the DNA, other molecules to replace the base, and the embryos to grow to eight cells -- they tested 54 of the 71 that survived. Of those, only a few had the replacement base, according to a report of the study published in Protein & Cell. The experiment stopped there as the embryos, which had been acquired from local fertility clinics, were non-viable and not implanted.
But procreation was not the point. Far from it, in fact. The point was to demonstrate that it could be done, that in some far off (or not so far off) future, doctors could use CRISPR to eliminate diseases like Tay-Sachs, Huntington's, and cystic fibrosis that are caused by genetic mutations. Going a step further, perhaps they could eventually even tailor embryos that will develop into adults with specific traits like height and IQ.
Experts agree that we are far from that point, years if not decades away from leveraging CRISPR to cure diseases and decades if not centuries from being able to build designer babies. In that frame, Huang's achievement is just a small step, a blip on the timeline of human achievement. But seen in another light, it's yet another sign that we need to start talking about DNA modification now, establishing protocols, procedures, and plans that guide the subject before we get so far down the road that momentum is impossible to stop.
"The Chinese generally don't have the religious objections to embryo research that have held back research in the West."
It's essential to do so now because the idea of DNA modification -- a realization that humanity can control its evolution -- is compelling and attractive. Imagine a world where doctors and scientists could get rid of disease before it begins or ensure a baby would arrive with an Einstein-level IQ. That's intriguing, and also terrifying. What are the rules? How do we know when to stop? What guides the process? And how can we prevent mistakes or unwanted mutations? To borrow from another famous quotation, with great power comes great responsibility.
These aren't questions for Huang and the Chinese scientific community alone. A team from Oregon recently edited viable human embryos, eliminating a mutation that can lead to heart failure while preventing any unintended consequences. Just as importantly, every embryo they edited produced the intended genetic changes, a vital step since a partial success rate, known as mosaicism, could have devastating consequences to a future child.
In London at the Francis Crick Institute, researcher Kathy Niakan used CRISPR-CAS9 to "turn off" a gene that produces the protein OCT4. Without the protein, the fertilized egg could not produce a blastocyst, which is a key structure in early mammalian development that gives rise to an embryo and placenta. The recent study wasn't designed to go further, but the use of CRISPR was important. "One way to find out what a gene does in the developing embryo is to see what happens when it isn't working," said Dr. Niakan, who was the first scientist in the world to be granted regulatory approval to edit the genes of a human embryo for research. "Now that we have demonstrated an efficient way of doing this, we hope that other scientists will use it to find out the roles of other genes. If we knew the key genes that embryos need to develop successfully, we could improve IVF treatments and understand some causes of pregnancy failure. It may take many years to achieve such an understanding. Our study is just the first step."
The point is, CRISPR is here and it's not going anywhere. Scientists will continue to use it to learn about how humans develop. Yet different rules regarding CRISPR and embryo research in countries around the world will impact who gets there first. "I've heard the U.S.-China gene editing research parallel paths as Sputnik 2.0," said Kevin Doxzen, Science Communications Specialist at the University of California, Berkeley's Innovative Genomics Institute. The race is on, and it's one everyone is going to try to win.
Based on number of researchers and ease of regulations, the Chinese are the favorites to advance the science the furthest, the fastest.
Based on number of researchers and ease of regulations, the Chinese are the favorites to advance the science the furthest, the fastest. "The Chinese generally don't have the religious (predominantly Christian) or moral objections to embryo research that have held back research in the West," said Dr. Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics and Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease at the University of Oxford. "This kind of research should be done, with the right sort of ethical oversight. The concern over China leading the way is that institutional oversight mechanisms are probably not as developed as in the West but so far, there is no evidence of breaches in standards of research ethics around the published research."
Or, put another way by bioethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan, founding director of NYU Langone Health's Division of Medical Ethics: "The Chinese, because they don't care and don't have moral reservations about embryo work, are doing what they want." This lack of aversion to working with embryos manifests itself in a couple of ways. The absence of moral qualms is one. Funding is another. Huang's study, and others like it, receive funding from the government. His, for example, was supported by two grants from the National Basic Research Program and three from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
The U.S., on the other hand, bans any federal funding for research using human embryos. A law passed in 1996 states that federal dollars can't be used for: "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses." This restriction can shift incentives as many private institutions or commercial enterprises may have financial motivations or other goals beyond furthering basic research for the sake of general knowledge.
Embryo gene modification recently performed in the U.K. would merit 15 years in prison in Australia.
The embryo research ban is even more strict elsewhere. The Oviedo Convention, enacted in 1997, effectively prohibits germline engineering in members of the European Union. "In Italy, you can't destroy an embryo for any reason," said Alessandro Bertero, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington's Department of Pathology who used to study in Italy. "It's illegal, and you'll go to jail." Later, Bertero was one of the researchers who worked with Dr. Niakan in London, an investigation that was allowed by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. (In Australia, Niakan and her colleagues would face 15 years in jail due to the 2002 Prohibition of Human Cloning Act, which prohibits altering the genomes of embryonic cells.)
Despite the moral and legal reservations in the Western world, every person I spoke with for this story believed that better, more advanced studies and learning is happening in the U.S. and Europe. "The best studies in my opinion are from the labs in California and Oregon," Bertero said. "The quality of the work [in the Chinese study] – not being critical, but to be scientifically critical -- was just quick and dirty. It was, 'Let's just show that we have done it and get it out.' That doesn't mean that the quality of the work was good."
"If the Chinese or someone else starts beating our brains out, we're not going to want to stand by idly and not do these things."
How long that remains the case, however, is an open question. A significant number of groups in China are working on germline editing in human embryos. The concern is that the Chinese will emerge as a leader sooner rather than later because they can do research with embryos more easily than their Western counterparts.
For Caplan, the NYU professor, the embryo ban in the U.S. isn't based on science; it's rooted in something else. "It's 96 percent political," he said, laughing. "It has basically ground to a halt because no one wants to see repercussions take place if federal funding is involved. The NIH isn't involved. And they won't be."
What, in his mind, would get Americans to start realizing the benefits that embryo research would provide? "The perception that other countries were moving quickly to get the advantages of CRISPR and other gene modification techniques, finding more industrial and more medical purposes," he said. "If the Chinese or someone else starts beating our brains out, we're not going to want to stand by idly and not do these things."
Doing so would involve difficult conversations about the role of embryos in research. But these are philosophical questions that need to be approached at some point. From a U.S. perspective, doing so sooner while the American scientists still hold the technological and informational edge, is vital. Ignoring the issue doesn't make it go away.
Experts think a few changes should be made. The ban on federal funding should be lifted. Scientists and regulators should push for things like allowing federal funds to be used for the creation of new embryos for research purposes and the use of spare IVF embryos for research when the embryo would not be implanted into a woman. (Privately funded scientists can proceed in states that encourage embryonic stem cell research, like New York, New Jersey, and California, but not in restrictive ones like Louisiana and South Dakota, which prohibit creating or destroying embryos for research.) Policymakers could ban reproductive gene editing for now but look at it again after a certain period. A highly anticipated report issued earlier this year from an international guidance committee left the door open to eventual clinical trials with edited embryos. As of now, however, Congress will not allow the Food and Drug Administration to consider such trials. This is the future and it's the scientific community's responsibility to develop the ethical framework now.
"The US and Europe have the technological history and capacity to lead this research and should do so, ethically. We ought to be revising our laws and ethical guidelines to facilitate this kind of research," Professor Savulescu said. "But the challenge is to think constructively and ethically about this new technology, and to be leaders, not followers."
In 1962, the world was a remarkably different place: Neil Armstrong had yet to take his first steps on the lunar surface, John F. Kennedy was serving as president of the United States, and the Beatles were still a few years away from superstardom, having just recorded their first single.
The word “measles” was also a household name. Measles, which still exists in parts of the world today, is a highly contagious viral infection that typically causes fever, cough, muscle pain, fatigue, and a distinctive red rash. Measles was so pervasive around the world in 1962 that most children had gotten sick with it before the age of fifteen—but even though it was common, it was far from harmless. Measles killed around 400 to 500 people per year in the United States, and approximately 2.6 million people each year worldwide. Countless others suffered severe complications from measles, such as permanent blindness.
Tragedy hits home
Author Roald Dahl at his Buckinghamshire home with Olivia, daughter Chantal, and wife Patricia Neal in 1960.
Ben Martin / Getty Images
That year, British author Roald Dahl was beginning to make a name for himself, having just published his best-selling book James and the Giant Peach. Dahl, who would go on to write some of the most well-loved children’s books of the century, lived in southern England with his wife and three children. One day, Dahl and his wife, actress Patricia Neal, received word that there was an outbreak of measles at his daughters’ school.
While some parents quarantined their children, many others also considered measles a harmless childhood disease. Neal later recalled in her autobiography that a family member had advised her to “let the girls get measles,” thinking it would strengthen their immune systems and be “good for them.” Reluctantly, Dahl and Neal let their two school-aged children, Olivia and Chantal, continue school. Olivia, then aged seven, fell sick with the measles not long after that.
Neither Dahl nor Neal were terribly concerned about Olivia’s infection. Dahl would write later that it seemed to be taking its “usual course,” and the two would read and spend time together while Olivia rested. After a few days of fever and fatigue, Dahl wrote, Olivia seemed like she was “well on the road to recovery.”
But one afternoon, as the two sat on Olivia’s bed making animals out of pipe cleaners, Dahl noticed that Olivia’s “fingers and her mind were not working together.” When Dahl asked how she was feeling, Olivia replied, “I feel all sleepy.”
Within an hour, Dahl wrote, Olivia was unconscious. Within 12 hours, she was dead.
Olivia died of measles encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by an infection. Approximately 1 in 1,000 people infected with measles develop encephalitis, and of those who develop it, between 10 and 20 percent will die.
Dahl was overcome with grief and wracked with guilt for being unable to prevent his daughter’s death. Mourning, Dahl threw himself into his writing and, in his spare time, spent hours lovingly constructing a rock garden on Olivia’s grave in a local churchyard.
After Olivia’s death, Dahl wrote sixteen novels and several collections of short stories, including Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which garnered him worldwide acclaim. His most influential piece of writing, however, wasn’t written until 1986.
A father's plea
Roald Dahl and the open letter he wrote in 1986, encouraging parents to vaccinate their children against measles.
By 1986, measles was no longer the global health threat that it had been in the 1960s, thanks to a measles vaccine that became available just one year after Olivia had died. Still, in the United Kingdom alone, approximately 80,000 people every year were infected with measles. This bothered Dahl, especially since measles rates in the United States had dropped by 98 percent compared to pre-vaccine years. “Why do we have so much measles in Britain when the Americans have virtually gotten rid of it?,” Dahl was reported to have said.
So Dahl set out to prevent a tragedy like Olivia’s from happening again. With encouragement from several prominent public health activists, Dahl wrote an open letter addressed to parents in the UK. The letter recounted his daughter’s death from encephalitis and begged parents to protect their own children from measles:
“...there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised [sic] against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.”
Dahl went on to say that although many parents still viewed measles as a harmless illness, he knew from experience that it was not. Measles was capable of causing disability and death, Dahl wrote, whereas a child had a better chance of “choking on a chocolate bar” than developing any serious complication from the vaccine. Dahl ended his letter by saying how happy he knew Olivia would be “if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.”
Dahl’s letter was published in early 1986 and distributed to local healthcare workers, schools, and to parents of children who were particularly at risk. As the letter circulated, vaccination rates continued to climb year after year.
Thirty-one years after Dahl’s letter was published, and 55 years after Olivia’s death, the World Health Organization declared in 2017 that measles had officially been eradicated for the first time in the UK thanks to high rates of vaccination.
A small step back
As vaccination rates decline, measles is now making a strong comeback in the United States and elsewhere.
Today, vaccination rates for the measles are in decline, and countries like the UK and the US, who had once eradicated measles completely, are now seeing a comeback. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that between December 1, 2023 and January 23, 2024, 23 cases of measles had been confirmed across multiple states. The majority of these cases, they reported, were among children and adolescents who had traveled internationally and had not yet been vaccinated even though they were eligible to do so.
Roald Dahl passed away in 1990, but fortunately, his writing continues to live on. While readers can explore fantastical worlds through his novels and short stories, they can also look back to a reality when tragic deaths like Olivia’s happened far too often. The difference is that today, thanks to modern science, we now have the tools to stop them.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.
On today’s episode of Making Sense of Science, I’m honored to be joined by Dr. Paul Song, a physician, oncologist, progressive activist and biotech chief medical officer. Through his company, NKGen Biotech, Dr. Song is leveraging the power of patients’ own immune systems by supercharging the body’s natural killer cells to make new treatments for Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Whereas other treatments for Alzheimer’s focus directly on reducing the build-up of proteins in the brain such as amyloid and tau in patients will mild cognitive impairment, NKGen is seeking to help patients that much of the rest of the medical community has written off as hopeless cases, those with late stage Alzheimer’s. And in small studies, NKGen has shown remarkable results, even improvement in the symptoms of people with these very progressed forms of Alzheimer’s, above and beyond slowing down the disease.
In the realm of cancer, Dr. Song is similarly setting his sights on another group of patients for whom treatment options are few and far between: people with solid tumors. Whereas some gradual progress has been made in treating blood cancers such as certain leukemias in past few decades, solid tumors have been even more of a challenge. But Dr. Song’s approach of using natural killer cells to treat solid tumors is promising. You may have heard of CAR-T, which uses genetic engineering to introduce cells into the body that have a particular function to help treat a disease. NKGen focuses on other means to enhance the 40 plus receptors of natural killer cells, making them more receptive and sensitive to picking out cancer cells.
Paul Y. Song, MD is currently CEO and Vice Chairman of NKGen Biotech. Dr. Song’s last clinical role was Asst. Professor at the Samuel Oschin Cancer Center at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
Dr. Song served as the very first visiting fellow on healthcare policy in the California Department of Insurance in 2013.He is currently on the advisory board of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and a board member of Mercy Corps, The Center for Health and Democracy, and Gideon’s Promise.
Dr. Song graduated with honors from the University of Chicago and received his MD from George Washington University. He completed his residency in radiation oncology at the University of Chicago where he served as Chief Resident and did a brachytherapy fellowship at the Institute Gustave Roussy in Villejuif, France. He was also awarded an ASTRO research fellowship in 1995 for his research in radiation inducible gene therapy.
With Dr. Song’s leadership, NKGen Biotech’s work on natural killer cells represents cutting-edge science leading to key findings and important pieces of the puzzle for treating two of humanity’s most intractable diseases.
- Paul Song LinkedIn
- NKGen Biotech on Twitter - @NKGenBiotech
- NKGen Website: https://nkgenbiotech.com/
- NKGen appoints Paul Song
- Patient Story: https://pix11.com/news/local-news/long-island/promising-new-treatment-for-advanced-alzheimers-patients/
- FDA Clearance: https://nkgenbiotech.com/nkgen-biotech-receives-ind-clearance-from-fda-for-snk02-allogeneic-natural-killer-cell-therapy-for-solid-tumors/Q3 earnings data: https://www.nasdaq.com/press-release/nkgen-biotech-inc.-reports-third-quarter-2023-financial-results-and-business