After global backlash involving the use of gene-editing tool CRISPR on human embryos, China will further tighten regulation on manipulating the human genome.
According to a report in Nature, a draft of new code in the country’s civil law explicitly lists human genes and embryos as protected personal rights for the first time ever.
Lawyers interviewed by Nature say that the law would make any doctor or scientist engaging in the editing of the human genome liable for the outcome of their experiments.
‘The law makes clear that those who do research with human genes and embryos cannot endanger human health or violate ethics,’ said Zhang Peng, a criminal-law scholar at Beijing Wuzi University to Nature.
Nature reports that the draft of the code was submitted to China’s top legislative body last month and will likely be ratified next year.
The country’s decision to codify rules surrounding the use of CRISPR to ‘edit’ humans’ genes follows an incident last year in which a Chinese scientist claims to have edited the genomes of two twin babies to make the resistant to HIV.
Researcher He Jiankui’s announcement marked a precedent in science and medicine that many doctors around the world called unethical, citing the lack of peer-reviewed literature regarding the ultimate effects of such manipulation in humans.
‘Unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,’ said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal told the Associated Press following the news.
This month, a group of bioethicists from China also called on the country to dramatically alter its approach to the field of human genomic experimentation.
‘China is at a crossroads,’ wrote researchers. ‘The government must make substantial changes to protect others from the potential effects of reckless human experimentation.’
While the law tighten’s the country’s grip on medical research involving the use of CRISPR to edit human genomes, the country’s position on the practice stops well short of an outright moratorium.
In March, China’s legislature introduced regulations that would require scientists to receive approval from the country’s top health agency before carrying out experiments that involve editing cells in the human body.
The law would impose fines and penalties relating to eligibility of grant applications and reaffirms that unsanctioned use of gene-editing tools may criminally break national law.
As both technologies like CRISPR and the research behind how the human genome functions expand, the prospects of being able to selectively edit human genes to achieve an outcome has become more and more of a reality.
In an ideal scenario, technology could be used to guard against genetic diseases and benefit humans across the globe.
Conversely, skeptics say the tool may also open the door to a host of other consequences including ‘genetic inequality’ where only those who can afford to enhance their genes are able to.
Unknown ripple effects of editing just a single gene in someone’s body have also been recorded. Babies altered during He Jiankui’s genetic test may have inadvertently had genes relating to human cognition and memory unlocked according to MIT.