The rise of Chinese science and CRISPR

So as of now China is producing more scientific publications than the United States of America. But there’s quality and there’s quantity. I think most people would still American science is more cutting edge than Chinese science. And for cultural reasons that may stay true for a while longer.

But there is one area where China seems to be forging ahead and likely will make advances earlier than the USA: genetics, and genetic engineering in particular. The Wall Street Journal has a long piece, China, Unhampered by Rules, Races Ahead in Gene-Editing Trials. It turns out that Chinese have been doing human trials since 2015. Meanwhile, in the USA the greenlight has still not been given (though it seems close).

Honestly how quickly the Chinese are moving in human trials is alarming. Then again, this is a country with the highest number of executions in the world (some of this is sheer size, but it’s higher per capita than the USA). So we should keep perspective. There are many worse things that the Chinese are doing in relation to human rights that moving too fast in trials with cancer patients.

In any case, this comment jumped out at me:

In traditional drug development, too, human-trial rules can differ among countries. But China’s foray into human Crispr trials has some Western scientists concerned about the unintended consequences of using the wholly new tool—such as harm to patients—which could set back the field for everyone.

Western scientists the Journal interviewed didn’t suggest America’s stringent requirements should be weakened. Instead, many advocate an international consensus on ethical issues around a science that makes fundamental changes to human DNA yet still isn’t completely understood.

As a descriptive matter, I am highly skeptical of the possibility that “international standards” is going to involve the Chinese adhering to Western standards. If a genuine international consensus is going to emerge there has to be a give and take, which means that the very high threshold set for safety in human trials in the West may not apply in China.

But editing embryos is normal science!

The media is writing breathless stories about the recent CRISPR “embryo-editing”, In Breakthrough, Scientists Edit a Dangerous Mutation From Genes in Human Embryos.

The paper is out in Nature, Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos.

My major confusion is that this is normal science. The breakthrough was the discovery of the power of CRISPR-Cas9. Once the discovery was made there was a literally stampede to use the technique because its power and ease was so manifest. What’s happening now is that the technique is getting more powerful and effective. I think it would surprise people if it didn’t get better.

A major problem for economists in modeling productivity growth is that innovation is unpredictable. But in this case the big innovation has occurred. The next few decades are likely going to see progressive and continuous improvement in the technology. Where that will lead us? Unpredictable….