Updated Jan 26, 2018

China’s blockbuster biotechnology week

Two cloned macaques named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua at the non-human-primate research facility under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Photo: Xinhua / Jin Liwang via Getty Images

Two biotechnology stories from China captured the world’s attention this past week:

  • First, the WSJ reported that a group of doctors in Hangzhou have been using CRISPR gene-editing in experiments with cancer patients. Elsewhere, medical scientists are far more cautious about using the technology in humans.

The concern: Clinical trials are not always well regulated around the world. The gene editing activity in China not only flouts the safety-first standard in developed countries and exploits desperate patients, it misses an opportunity to learn from carefully designed clinical trials.

  • Second, more than two decades after Dolly the sheep was cloned, scientists in China reported they had cloned the first primate. It required new techniques and involved dozens of failures before two infant monkeys were finally born with perfect copies of the genes in their cells, creating enormous opportunities for comparative research.

What it means: These results reinforce the possibility of using human clones for research. Still, the risks involved in cloning for human reproduction are simply too great, as the many failed attempts at monkey cloning make clear.

The bottom line: These developments are a reminder that the U.S. is no longer the sole player. However, science is not a zero-sum game. Along with the need for appropriate regulation, the question now is whether the U.S. is in a position to collaborate and contribute new information. In that sense, the less flashy National Institutes of Health announcement of a $190 million commitment to support work on new tools for gene editing is ultimately the bigger news this week.

Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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