China and US race in gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy

Business Mirror - - SCIENCE MONDAY - Bloomberg News

U. S. com­pa­nies rac­ing to de­velop a promis­ing gene- edit­ing tech­nol­ogy are up against a for­mi­da­ble com­peti­tor— the Chi­nese govern­ment. China has long set its heart on build­ing an ex­per­tise in ge­nomics, and its govern­ment is pour­ing funds into a new— and some­times con­tro­ver­sial— tool called Crispr, en­cour­ag­ing its re­searchers to ad­vance the tech­nol­ogy. Chi­nese sci­en­tists say they were among the first in us­ing Crispr to make wheat re­sis­tant to a com­mon fun­gal dis­ease, dogs more mus­cu­lar and pigs with leaner meat. The sci­en­tific re­search bankrolled by the Chi­nese govern­ment could even­tu­ally be tapped by agri­cul­tural and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies.

Pro­grams funded by Bei­jing are, among other things, work­ing on dis­ease- re­sis­tant toma­toes, breast- can­cer treat­ments and in­creas­ing the oil con­tent in soy beans.

In the south­ern city of Guangzhou, re­searchers who re­ceived govern­ment funds went a step fur­ther, spark­ing an in­ter­na­tional eth­i­cal de­bate last year af­ter tweak­ing the ge­netic makeup of hu­man em­bryos us­ing Crispr for the first time.

For­mally called Crispr-Cas9, the ge­netic- edit­ing tool acts like a pair of low- cost and highly pre­cise molec­u­lar scis­sors that can cut out un­wanted sec­tions of DNA and insert de­sired ones. It has rev­o­lu­tion­ized what was once a time- con­sum­ing, pricey and in­ac­cu­rate process, and sci­en­tists and busi­nesses world­wide are seek­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on this emerg­ing tech­nique. The ex­per­tise the Chi­nese groups are de­vel­op­ing po­si­tions them to even­tu­ally chal­lenge US gene- edit­ing com­pa­nies, some of which have raised mil­lions in ven­ture cap­i­tal.

“I would rank the US and China as first and se­cond Crispr- Cas9 re­search coun­tries, re­spec­tively, at this time. Both coun­tries have much strength in this area,” said Paul Knoepfler, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of cell bi­ol­ogy and hu­man anatomy at the UC Davis School of Medicine in Cal­i­for­nia, who re­cently pub­lished a book ti­tled GMO Sapi­ens, dis­cussing the ap­pli­ca­tion of gene-mod­i­fy­ing tech­nol­ogy on hu­mans.

“The US cur­rently gets the edge in high-pro­file pa­pers, Crispr biotech and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty. China has pub­lished a lot in Crispr an­i­mals.”

The Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group es­ti­mated in Septem­ber that US gene- edit­ing com­pa­nies have at­tracted more than $ 1 bil­lion in in­vest­ment since 2013. Edi­tas Medicine Inc., In­tel­lia Ther­a­peu­tics Inc. and Po­seida Ther­a­peu­tics Inc. are among the US biotech com­pa­nies re­search­ing Crispr to tackle health dis­or­ders. Edi­tas this month raised about $ 109 mil­lion in the first US ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing

Chi­nese re­search and Re­gen­er­a­tive Medicine. “Whether it’s an­i­mal or plant, our coun­try has spe­cial funds for this as­pect of work.”

Last year the Na­tional Nat­u­ral Sci­ence Foun­da­tion of China, a prom­i­nent govern­ment backed in­sti­tu­tion that funds re­search, awarded more than 23 mil­lion yuan ($3.5 mil­lion) to at least 42 Crispr projects, more than dou­ble the pre­vi­ous year. It is just one of sev­eral govern­ment in­sti­tu­tions pro­vid­ing Crispr fund­ing in China.

China is also aided by a large pool of in­ter­na­tion­ally trained sci­en­tists, many of whom have re­turned home af­ter work­ing over­seas. The Chi­nese Min­istry of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy didn’t re­spond to a fax seek­ing com­ment. Backed partly by grants from the Min­istry of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, Lai, the re­searcher in south­ern China, has fo­cused on biomed­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions of Crispr. He’s given pigs genes that al­low them to con­tract hu­man dis­eases and serve as trial sub­jects for new treat­ments, or even act as po­ten­tial sources of or­gans for hu­man trans­plant. of 2016. While Crispr has yet to be proven ef­fec­tive in cre­at­ing new treat­ments, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies world­wide see it as a po­tent tool. The hope is that it could po­ten­tially gen­er­ate ther­a­pies for con­di­tions from can­cer to blood dis­eases. A CHI­NESE team at Sun Yat- sen Univer­sity in Guangzhou last year be­came the first to re­port Crispr work in hu­man em­bryos, at­tempt­ing to edit a gene that causes the blood dis­or­der, tha­lassemia. The study was at least partly funded by two govern­men­trun or­ga­ni­za­tions, the Na­tional Nat­u­ral Sci­ence Foun­da­tion of China and an­other called the Na­tional Ba­sic Re­search Pro­gram.

The re­search caused an in­ter­na­tional stir, even though the sci­en­tists only used “non­vi­able” hu­man em­bryos— or those ob­tained through fer­til­ity clin­ics and with­out any po­ten­tial for live births.

Prof. Huang Jun­jiu, who led the study, de­clined to com­ment. In pub­lish­ing their find­ings, the Chi­nese re­searchers said Crispr needs to be bet­ter un­der­stood and more ac­cu­rate be­fore be­ing used in hu­man test­ing.

While there is still lit­tle pri­vate in­vest­ment in gene edit­ing in China, a pub­licly traded Chi­nese com­pany called Shen­zhen Jin­jia Color Print­ing Group Co. in a De­cem­ber state­ment said it would pro­vide 3 mil­lion yuan ($ 460,000) in fund­ing to the univer­sity. The com­pany, which prints cig­a­rette boxes, has iden­ti­fied the health in­dus­try as a key area of growth and hopes to even­tu­ally share the rights to the Crisp r-based tha­lassemia-treat­ment tech­nol­ogy, it said via e-mail.

In the US the fed­eral govern­ment doesn’t fund work that de­stroys or creates hu­man em­bryos for re­search pur­poses. This month the UK’s Hu­man Fer­til­i­sa­tion and Em­bry­ol­ogy Au­thor­ity gave a group of re­searchers per­mis­sion to con­duct Crispr re­search on hu­man em­bryos, al­though they still need an ethics com­mit­tee to ap­prove their plans.

Us­ing Crispr to cure dis­ease “is prob­a­bly eth­i­cal,” said Eric Hen­drick­son, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota Med­i­cal School, whose re­search uses Crispr tech­niques for DNA re­pair. “To use that tech­nol­ogy to make your child run faster or jump higher is uni­formly frowned upon. The tech­nol­ogy to do that, how­ever, will soon be in place.”

Most of China’s fund­ing for Crispr re­search is com­ing from the govern­ment, with very few pri­vate com­pa­nies putting money into gene mod­i­fi­ca­tion work, said Lai Liangxue, deputy di­rec­tor of the South­ern China In­sti­tute of Stem Cell Bi­ol­ogy

Get­ting li­censes LAI’S team also snipped a gene that in­hibits mus­cle growth in bea­gles, en­abling the mod­i­fied dogs to have stronger mus­cles, run faster and jump higher than nor­mal ones. The same tech­nol­ogy could po­ten­tially ben­e­fit the po­lice and mil­i­tary in the fu­ture if ap­plied to ca­nine breeds com­monly used by law en­force­ment agen­cies, he said.

Par t of the chal­lenge for Chi­nese com­pa­nies will be get­ting li­censes to use Crispr com­mer­cially once there are pa­tents awarded in­ter­na­tion­ally. Sev­eral aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions in the US and else­where have al­ready filed pa­tent ap­pli­ca­tions for Crispr- Cas9 tech­nol­ogy.

“With­out ob­tain­ing li­censes from th­ese par­ties, com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions in China or else­where will be ham­pered,” Jin- Soo Kim, a pro­fes­sor with the Cen­ter for Genome En­gi­neer­ing at Seoul Na­tional Univer­sity. Crispr has al­ready boosted a new in­dus­try in China that sup­plies ge­net­i­cally edited an­i­mals to for­eign re­search labs and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies.

Re­searchers in the US and China also see its po­ten­tial in agri­cul­ture— to po­ten­tially cre­ate dis­ease re­sis­tant grains or bet­ter qual­ity meat. Rais­ing a ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered pig with Crispr tech­nol­ogy is al­ready cheaper in China at about 700,000 yuan, while in the US it could cost four or five times as much, Lai said. La­bor and other costs are lower in China.

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