“Deplorable” Chinese Doctors Lose Track of Gene Altered Patients

Screenshot: NY Times

Gizmodo – Gene therapies are very much at their preliminary stages of development, so it would make sense to keep tabs on patients whose DNA has been modified via the innovative CRISPR technique.

For some scientists in China, however, this is apparently not a priority.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that an undisclosed number of Chinese cancer patients who have undergone experimental gene therapies aren’t being properly tracked as would be expected.

In these cases, the patients had their genes modified with the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool in an effort to treat their cancer.

The scientists in charge of at least one trial failed to maintain ties with their patients afterwards and conduct follow-up examinations, according to the WSJ.

Indeed, follow-ups are extra critical for patients undergoing gene therapies. Changes to DNA can trigger unintended consequences known as knock-off effects.

Unexpected health problems stemming from gene modifications, such as autoimmune disorders, could appear later in life.

“Since we do not fully understand the human genome and are still developing knowledge of [CRISPR-Cas9 and related technologies], we need to monitor the intended and unintended consequences over the lifespan of patients,” Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-inventor of CRISPR, told the WSJ.

This is the latest troubling development for biomedical research in China. Last month, Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have produced the world’s first gene-edited babies. Designer Babies: “A Terrifying New Chapter In Gene Editing”

The scientist, who works at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said he used CRISPR to modify the DNA of human embryos, resulting in the birth of twin girls with an apparent immunity to HIV.

Shortly after that news broke, the Chinese government expanded its social credit system to include infractions made by researchers, an effort to curb endemic scientific misconduct …

China Has Already Gene-Edited 86 People With CRISPR

In China, however, there’s no equivalent to the FDA. Doctors can proceed with a clinical trial after receiving approval from their hospital’s ethics boards, the WSJ reports. As of January 2018, at least 86 patients in China have had their DNA edited with CRISPR …

Three of the doctors involved in the gene-editing trials were recently contacted by China’s science and health ministries (the closest thing that China has to the FDA, which isn’t really even close). When the WSJ contact these ministries for more information, they declined to comment.

This is all very frustrating and regrettable, mostly because this deplorable scientific behavior is giving CRISPR and the entire prospect of gene-editing a bad name. Read more. 

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