11/29/2018, 17.00
CHINA
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He Jiankui, gene editor and big shareholder in genetics companies

by Paul Wang

Criticised by the scientific community, He is under investigation because genetic modification is banned in China. Yet, the genetics industry is largely funded by the state. Genetic industrial parks are planned or under construction in Guangdong, Anhui, Fujian and Jiangsu. The government finances them together through private and international companies. He Jiankui is associated with a number of them.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - The experiment conducted by genetics scientist He Jiankui, who claims to have modified the DNA of embryos to protect them from HIV, continues to be front-page news.

Lula and Nana, the twin girls whose DNA was modified, are said to be immune from their father’s HIV. However, the main issue is Dr He’s links to genetics companies.

Yesterday, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing at Hong Kong University, he apologised for the unintentional leak of his breakthrough in the media. Dr He also said he was waiting for another potential pregnancy achieved with a gene-edited embryo.

Some of his colleagues have accused him of going too far because there are simpler methods to protect the embryos from HIV that do not involve DNA.

The ethical and scientific concern stem from the still unknown consequences of gene-editing, whose effects could be passed on and affect future generations.

The international scientific community remains in favour of experimentation but has doubts about implanting edited embryos to give birth to human beings. For most scientists, more time is needed to monitor the effects of new procedures and the public should be informed.

Such techniques are already widely used with plants and animals: mushrooms, insects, pigs, tomatoes, but given the concerns with respect to humans, several countries have banned gene modification resulting in live births, China included.

In light of the situation, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has launched an investigation into whether He Jiankui broke the law, which has banned gene editing since 2003.

The scientist tried to shield from criticism the university in Shenzhen and the hospital where he worked.

According to local media, he said he paid for the experiment out of his own pocket, this despite the fact that he has used research funds provided by the state.

Major investments in genetics technologies have been made in China with government funds going to companies and laboratories. The goal is for them to dominate this new industry and compete with the United States, which is already very advanced in the field but where research is limited by religious considerations and legal prohibitions.

In the meantime, in China genetic industrial parks are planned or are under construction in Guangdong, Anhui, Fujian and Jiangsu provinces with public moneys going to private and international companies.

He Jiankui holds shares (up to 63 pe cent) in six of these companies. He is also director or president in four and legal representative in six.

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