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Expert Voices

China’s blockbuster biotechnology week

two baby macaque monkeys held by scientist in lab coat and gloves
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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Airlines may not be the "germ incubator" you thought

Inside of an airplane
Photo: via Getty Images

The chance of becoming infected with a common respiratory virus on an airplane may be smaller than originally thought — less than 3% unless you are sitting within one meter of an infected person, where your chances rise to 80%, according to a study published in PNAS Monday.

Why it matters: There are more than 3 billion airline passengers annually, and global health officials want to learn more how infectious diseases are transmitted, particularly after reported transmission of cases of flu pandemic and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) via planes.

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Early humans innovated tools earlier than thought

Archaeologist Rick Potts squats in the Olorgesailie Basin in Kenya with various surprisingly sophisticated tools found from 320,000 years ago.
Richard Potts surveys assortment of Early Stone Age handaxes discovered in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. Photo: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Unpredictable climate and natural disasters like earthquakes may have spurred early humans to create innovative tools and ways to communicate earlier than previously thought, according to 3 studies published Thursday in Science.

What they found: Evidence that around 320,000 years ago — near the start of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown — early humans in East Africa may have created projectile hunting tools, developed ways to communicate using colors for mapping or identification purposes, and traveled longer distances to trade, hunt or obtain valuable materials.

"It's not just humans changing but really the entire ecosystem. It's a picture that's bigger than just the human ancestors themselves."
— Smithsonian's Richard Potts, who spearheaded the studies