China becomes a world leader in genome editing

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With its CRISPR revolution, China becomes a world leader in genome editing

 By Jon Cohen, Nirja DesaiAug. 2, 2019 , 8:00 AM

This story introduces Science's CRISPR in China series, supported by the Pulitzer Center.

For many people, CRISPR plus China equals the biophysicist He  Jiankui, who infamously used the genome editor last year to alter the  DNA of two human embryos that would become twin girls. Before his  announcement, He was little-known within the country's CRISPR community,  which has grown rapidly and is now challenging—and by some measures  surpassing—the United States in its use of the powerful tool (see  graphics below).

A better representative of CRISPR in China is plant biologist Li  Jiayang of the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in  Beijing. Li left the country in 1985 for his graduate education, as have  many of China's best and brightest young scientists over the past few  decades, and then returned home in 1995 to focus on manipulating plant  DNA. Li, who recently ended a stint as head of the Chinese Academy of  Agricultural Sciences, says he struggled for years to make pinpoint  genome edits. CRISPR gave him a simple, fast way to do just that,  turbocharging his efforts to modify rice. "Now, suddenly, the dreams  come true," says Li, whose lab is humming at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday with  two dozen members of his team running experiments.

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The lights are burning late at CRISPR labs around the world. In 2012,  the year researchers transformed a bacterial immune system into the  fast and versatile tool for genome engineering, scientific publications  mentioning CRISPR totaled 127. Since then there have been more than  14,000. Although the United States has had the most CRISPR  publications—and continues to have the most cited papers—China is now a  close second and is pouring money into CRISPR's uses.

With support from the Pulitzer Center, Science visited scientists in five Chinese cities who are harnessing CRISPR in a wide range of disciplines. China's biggest push is in agriculture but researchers there are also applying the editor on a large scale in animals, with pig organs for human transplants the most provocative goal. And China is aggressively exploring genome editing in medicine, having launched far more clinical trials using CRISPR, mainly for cancer, than any country.

Although He's work lies far outside the mainstream, his actions haunt China.  So does another, largely untold aspect of his rise and fall: the role  that others, in China and abroad, played in the runup to his experiment.  He shared his plans widely, and although several confidants tried to dissuade him, some were more encouraging.

Geneticist Wei Wensheng of Peking University in Beijing says the  Chinese scientific culture has to look hard at how it creates  researchers like He by overemphasizing firsts. "What I don't understand  is why do you want to be named the first of something horrible or bad.  What's the point?" Wei asks.

Yang Hui of the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai, one of the  most successful young CRISPR researchers in the country, hopes China can  move past He and up its game. Yes, Chinese researchers publish many  CRISPR studies, he says, but "very few" do respected work that breaks  new ground. "Our generation should publish more innovative papers," Yang  says.

But Yang stresses that he has seen the quality increase "very fast"  over the past 2 years or so. As China plants its flag at this scientific  frontier, overseas sojourns like Li's and his own may soon be the  exception. "Now, many good students will choose to stay here because of  the good opportunities," Yang says. "And we have many good students  working hard."

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The world’s first-ever human-monkey hybrid

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  The  world’s first-ever human-monkey hybrid has been grown by a Spanish  scientist in a lab in China, which was viable and could have been born,  but the process was terminated.    
   Monkey  embryos were genetically modified to create a hybrid embryo. They  deactivated certain genes that lead to the formation organs, and then  injected the embryo with human stem cells.    
   This  breakthrough experiment, which is considered an important step forward  towards using animals for human organ transplants, had to take place in  China to avoid legal issues.    
  
    The findings have not yet been published, but the team reported the creation of the hybrid to El País.    
   The  embryo was destroyed at 14 days of gestation, which is dubbed the ‘red  line’, meaning the embryo did not yet develop a central nervous system.    
   The  scientist Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte also hit the headlines in 2017 as  he was responsible for creating the first human pig hybrid.    
   The 2017  experiment was less successful but his team could claim that they  conducted ‘the first experiment of human and pig chimeras in the world’.    
   A genetic chimera, or chimerism, is a single organism composed of cells from different individuals.    
   University of California veterinarian Pablo Ross, Professor Izpisua’s colleague, said:    
 

 “THE  HUMAN CELLS DID NOT TAKE HOLD. WE SAW THAT THEY CONTRIBUTED VERY LITTLE  [TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EMBRYO]: ONE HUMAN CELL FOR EVER 100,000 PIG  CELLS”
 

 
   The team  were able to more easily create chimeras between species more similar to  eachother, such as the rat and the mouse, when are 5 times closer than  pigs and humans.    
   Project collaborator Estrella Núñez described this experiment as ‘very promising’. He said:    
 

 ‘WE ARE  NOW TRYING NOT ONLY TO MOVE FORWARD AND CONTINUE EXPERIMENTING WITH  HUMAN CELLS AND RODENT AND PIG CELLS, BUT ALSO WITH NON-HUMAN PRIMATES.  OUR COUNTRY IS A PIONEER AND A WORLD LEADER IN THESE INVESTIGATIONS’
 

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