Cloning and the Chinese

Posted: Sep 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Hold on to your hats (and your Bibles), life is about to become even more confusing. In China, Dr. Huizhen Sheng apparently has taken donor cells from the foreskin of a 5-year-old boy and two men, and facial tissue from a woman, and put those cells inside a rabbit egg that had been stripped of almost all its rabbit DNA, and thus has created a hybrid rabbit-human embryo -- from which she and her team were able to extract "human" embryonic stem cells. Technically, the rabbit egg kept its rabbit mitochondria (the chemical power source for a cell), so the embryos are not allowed to "develop" (e.g., live) for more than a few days. However, their product -- embryonic stem cells (ESCs) -- presumably will be usable to establish more ESCs for both research and applied purposes. By not requiring human eggs (until now the only source of human ESCs), the Chinese have gone around the problem of both the cost and risk of human egg retrieval procedures. There are abundant rabbit eggs because -- rabbits, well, ... breed like rabbits and can't complain. Dr. Sheng's objective is to be able to cure many diseases and advance genetic engineering technologies.

Now, you and your local congressman may well wish to ban all hybrid species breeding to assure that we don't find in our midst humans with buck teeth, floppy ears and an insatiable lust for carrots. But the political significance of this Chinese rabbit chimera is that it is just a small part of an official Chinese plan to lead the world in genetic engineering technologies. China is going to pass legislation this year that will ensure that China has the most deregulated legal setting in the world for biotechnology. They plan to mass-produce human organs from "sacrificial" hybrid species embryos.

The cloning rules are being written by the Chinese Academy of Science. The Chinese government will start funding -- initially at over a $100,000,000 per annum -- their National Center for Biotechnology Development and their Human Tissues Research and Development Center in Shanghai. These centers are increasingly being staffed by Chinese students who studied in America and Europe, but are returning to exploit the lack of restrictions in China. The London Daily Telegraph reported that Zhu Xiarong, one of the scientists, believes that the "revolutionary genetic research which is going to take place will lead to industrialization of cloning. ... I quit my former post ... to become involved. My salary level dropped by half ... Yet I don't think I have made a sacrifice. I have a great career -- and stock options."

Meanwhile, here in the United States, we are having an intense ethical debate on whether to permit any new ESC lines to be created -- even for medical research purposes. But, I suspect that if current trends continue, in a few years we will be having a more urgent debate on whether to let the Red Chinese continue to race ahead of us on the entire bioengineering front, because the potential for strategic geopolitical advantage over us is immense.

The genetic process is vastly more complex and subtle than was first thought. Each gene affects many traits, and many genes play a role in each trait. Moreover, genes function throughout our lives -- turning on and off various life forces in our bodies and brains. And, as Matt Ridley, a wonderful science writer, has explained, the environment in which genes exist have a much bigger role in how the genes behave than was recently thought. Thus, vast research is required before practical genetic engineering of a high order is possible. But it is possible -- and fairly quickly in a country that places no ethical limitations on such research. The implications are breathtaking.

For example, it is already known that the ASPM gene on human chromosome No. 1 regulates the number of times neuronal stem cells divide inside the embryonic brain about two weeks after conception, thus determining the number of neurons the adult brain will have. Assuming proper synapse, the more neurons, the higher the potential intelligence of the individual. Of course, environment also plays a measurable part in usable human intelligence -- but if the genetic part can be manipulated upward on an "industrial" basis in a population -- there will probably prove to be no reason why, within a few decades, a group of super intelligent people could not be formed. Moreover, bio-engineering may be able to physically improve man across the entire spectrum of our functions -- yielding extraordinary economic as well as strategic advantages. (Neanderthal man was a magnificently successful early man. But when he met the more intelligent CroMagnon man, he quickly went extinct.)

Of course, mistakes will be made. Island of Dr. Moreau-like monsters may well be formed. God may punish a people who presume to tinker with his handiwork. But, as the Chinese push forward, hell-bent for industrial levels of genetic manipulation and cloning, supported by the massive bioengineering research they are now beginning to fund, American voters and congressmen will have to balance their strong ethical and religious revulsion of cloning against the danger of being surpassed by a gene-manipulated super-race. John Kennedy won the presidency in 1960 warning of a missile gap with the Soviets. Will some future president win on the warning of a brain gap with the Red Chinese?