By Dr.Abdul Razak Shaikh,
When it comes to CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) there’s the US, China and everybody else. A recent analysis shows the US still holds more CRISPR-related patent applications (872 versus China’s 858). For comparison, all of Europe has 186 patents. The same study shows US-based scientists have released 2,976 CRISPR-related scientific papers to their Chinese counterparts’ 2,059. Japan, in third place, has 228. In some areas, such as agriculture and industrial applications, China holds more patents and has published more papers than anyone else.
Patents and papers alone do not make a science superpower. Other important factors include the backing of government organizations and educational institutions’ renown. Traditionally, US universities have drawn top scientists from around the world, but for CRISPR that seems to be changing. Chinese universities have successfully enticed Chinese gene-editing scientists to return from the US and international Scientists are immigrating to China to do their research. In its latest five year plan, the Chinese government highlighted gene editing as a focus point and committed to easing the surrounding bureaucratic framework.
The country seems to be focusing its efforts on areas such as agriculture, human medicine, and basic research. A new gene-editing technology similar to CRISPR coming out of the University of Peking is proof of the latter. Supposedly, the new technology, called LEAPER, is similar to CRISPR-Cas13 but uses arRNA instead of RNA, easing delivery of gene edits and lowering risks of unwanted cellular responses.
Sheer numbers seem to play a pivotal role in China’s approach to CRISPR research. For example, the study with Hercules involved 27 puppies. Across China, there are at least four groups of CRISPR researchers gene editing large colonies of monkeys, while others are using dogs, mice, rats, pigs, and rabbits.
Reproductive biologist Jon Hennebold at the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Hillsboro told Science, The most startling part of what is coming out of China is seeing how they have just a brute-force approach. The level of animal the support they have to do those experiments is really astounding.
Some of the animals, including Hercules, seem to suffer no ill consequences, but others are given excruciating diseases. Some projects, such as the reported collaboration between Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte from the Salk Institute in California and researchers in China are splicing human cells to animal embryos. The goal is to create organs, like kidneys or a liver that can be harvested for transplantation into humans. The embryo study was carried out in China to avoid legal issues.
Ethical questions abound with such studies, but, at least on the surface, they seem less prevalent in China compared to many Western countries. For comparison, US legislators could soon force the National Institutes of Health to end non-human primitive experiment altogether.
The most prevalent counterargument is that such experiments can lead to cures for many diseases, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and perhaps even some forms of cancer.
China’s full-speed-ahead approach on CRISPR extends beyond animal research. There is at least 20 research group across the country using CRISPR to modify crop genes as part of a wider, technology-based push to improve agricultural output. Recent figures are hard to come by, but in 2013, China’s public funding of agricultural research was close to $10 billion, more than twice that of the US, and it doesn’t seem to have slowed down since.
The animal and plant-based CRISPR studies seem to be fulfilling two purposes. First, they help bolster China’s position on several of the economic political and technological fronts, where the country is e squaring off with the US. Second, gene editing offers viable solutions to some of the major issues facing the world’s most populous country.
Chinese authorities need to find ways of feeding 1.4 billion people out of the world’s rising population. Competition for resources, including food, is increasing, so being able to produce more of it at home is imperative. At the same time, Chinese demographics are changing. The middle class is growing rapidly, leading to changes such as increased consumption of meat and higher prevalence of lifestyle diseases. It also faces stark shortages when it comes to, among other things, some healthcare supplies and services. One study suggests that 300,000 Chinese people need organ transplants, but there are just 10,000 organs available.
All this brings us to the biggest CRISPR story to come out of China over the last couple of years, He Jiankui gene-edited babies. While the Chinese authorities have condemned the experiment, other studies that involve using CRISPR on humans are still going ahead.
If China indeed grabs the lead on CRISPR, it could translate into a variety of advantages. As the ongoing battle over who invented CRISPR clearly illustrates, future earnings are very dependent on patent rights. Such rights are often tied to scientific studies. The combination of both is key to developing patented new solutions and products, which people across the globe will likely want to purchase, especially considering that many countries face similar challenges to China when it comes to healthcare shortages or finding ways to produce more food.
The good news is that the competition will almost invariably lead to new discoveries and solutions that can be beneficial for all of humanity.