9/6/2017 Gene-Editing in China: Beneficial Science or Emerging Military Threat?

JULY 13, 2017

Gene-Editing in China: Beneficial Science or
Emerging Military Threat?
BY BRENT M. EASTWOOD

A gene-editing technology that has already shown tremendous medical breakthroughs has some wondering
if cancer and HIV can be defeated by genetic engineering. But despite the optimistic headlines, the technique
known as CRISPR is also becoming an emerging international security threat. CRISPR could someday
enable U.S. adversaries to genetically-engineer bioweapons or even create “super soldiers” to dominate
future battlefields.

Scientists in China are racing ahead. They have already modified human embryos, cloned a dog, and spliced
genes in monkeys and mice. Meanwhile, some American biotech firms are exporting CRISPR technology for
legitimate scientific discovery around the globe. But their sales efforts sometimes target customers in China
who may be conducting beneficial civilian research, or developing sinister military applications.

What is CRISPR?
CRISPR is a laboratory process that edits DNA. The technique is based on a figurative “pair of molecular
scissors” from an enzyme called Cas-9 that can focus on amending specific DNA for a desired effect in the
targeted genome. Doctors and researchers can then “remove, add, or alter the genetic sequence,” according
to YourGenome.org. Moreover, the CRISPR-Cas9 “system currently stands out as the fastest, cheapest and
most reliable system for ‘editing’ genes,” according to the Wellcome Genome Campus website, a bioscience
research institute in Cambridge, England.

While most CRISPR research is devoted to benevolent advances in medicine and science, last year, former
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was quoted in a threat assessment report that US enemies
could use the technique for nefarious purposes.

After that warning, Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative Director Mathew Burrows said
the “speed of these scientific developments…continues to outpace the ability for us to prepare.”

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9/6/2017 Gene-Editing in China: Beneficial Science or Emerging Military Threat?

Gene Editing as an International Security Threat
In an Atlantic Council panel on gene editing in September 2016, Dr.Dr. Pierre Noel, a professor at the Mayo
Clinic and a non-resident fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, agreed the technique
could be a threat. “It’s possible that in the future, as the technology becomes more sophisticated, countries
may be able to implement gene-editing technology to design…super soldiers…with great muscle force and
strength.”

The main concern about gene-editing and its potential danger is the ease of obtaining “CRISPR toolkits for
less than $50.” In May of this year, the web site Futurism chronicled how organizationsorganizations routinely
distribute the kits around the world. Addgene, a nonprofit DNA molecule repository in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, has sent “thousands of CRISPR toolkits to researchers in more than 80 countries,” according
to Futurism.

One of those countries is China. Chinese researchers use Addgene frequently. They have made over 10,000
requests for CRISPR plasmids (separated DNA molecules) and hundreds of deposits of plasmids in the
Addgene repository. The organization also has a distributor in Beijing.

Russian researchers work with Addgene too and the nonprofit helps scientists navigate Russian customs.
Addgene, to its credit, has numerous safeguards in place to ensure that its products are used for legitimate
science. Researchers must show evidence that they are working in academia or in other valid research
laboratories. Addgene also does not ship to “Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria.”

While Russian scientists from the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) have shown
modest success conducting CRISPR experiments testing bacterial immunity, it is China that has become a
global leader.

This month, Chinese researchers at a biotech firm in Beijing announced they cloned a dog using gene
editing. Genome experts believe that China is either ahead of the United States in CRISPR breakthroughs or
is closely behind. In April, China began using CRISPR techniques on a human with cancer.

Is Chinese CRISPR Research for Military or Civilian Use?
There is so much gene-editing research being conducted in China it is difficult to pinpoint the primary
sources. It is also not easy to discern whether the research in China has civilian, military, or defense
applications. The secretive Academy of Military Medical Sciences and the Third Military Medical University
are the most likely defense labs. These DARPA-like institutions handle medical studies for the People’s

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9/6/2017 Gene-Editing in China: Beneficial Science or Emerging Military Threat?

Liberation Army and both are feverishly pumping out CRISPR research.

Chinese military scientists are using the technique to produce proteins of human blood called albumin in
baby pigs. Military researchers are improving CRISPR gene splicing with their own innovative light-induced
editing systems. Other studies focus on improving cancer drug resistance. The Chinese military is also
investigating removing Hepatitis-B virus DNA with CRISPR.

The main civilian CRISPR laboratories appear to be affiliated with Chinese Academy of Sciences, particularly
its Institute of Neuroscience at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences. These centers alone have
dozens of labs with at least 50 scientists who could be working on gene editing at any given time. And that
estimated number is just in neuroscience. That does not count all the Chinese CRISPR researchers who are
toiling in human bioscience or animal biology. These civilian scientists are speeding through experiments
with monkeys and mice. But more worrisome are this year’s Chinese CRISPR breakthroughs in human
embryos. The United States has banned CRISPR techniques conducted on human embryos.

American Biotechnology Firms Could Be Unwittingly Helping
China
China has leapt forward in CRISPR research mostly because of significant government funding. Gene editing
has likely been given a high priority by the People’s Liberation Army. Another factor in Chinese scientific
development could be the growth of the American biotech sector that is dedicated to gene-editing. Some
U.S. firms consider China a huge export market for CRISPR technology. At least four of these U.S.
companies have some connection to China.

CRISPR Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has developed its own proprietary gene-editing
platform. It has raised $89 million in venture funding. The firm announced in June that it has received a
Chinese patent for its CRISPR/Cas 9 Genome Editing system.

GeneCopoeia, in Rockville, Maryland, sells numerous CRISPR tools. The firm has a Chinese product
distributor at the Guangzhou Science Park.

GenScript in Piscataway, New Jersey, has an office in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. It recently announced in
March it is working with a genetic science foundation to “engage and expand the synthetic biology research
community in China.”

GENEWIZ, with its headquarters in New Jersey, has numerous services in genome editing and engineering,

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9/6/2017 Gene-Editing in China: Beneficial Science or Emerging Military Threat?

including the field of synthetic biology. GENEWIZ has worked with the National Key Laboratory of Biotherapy
of Sichuan University in China to synthesize Zika virus key genes.

I am in no way claiming that these non-profit and for-profit entities are doing anything improper, unethical, or
unlawful. There is a high demand for CRISPR products and services in China, and these organizations are
simply meeting that demand in a free market system. There have been a handful of Congressional hearings
on CRISPR, but it does not appear any have focused on export controls for foreign military use.

Meanwhile, China is clearly pursuing dual-use genetic engineering technology. Beijing likely plans on
becoming the undisputed global leader in gene editing for its military and civilian medical and scientific
communities. As Burrows has said, the speed of the technological advances in this field is astonishing, and
future growth will continue to be difficult to track and analyze. The CRISPR tool kits are cheap and easy to
get. Each day more scientists around the world are obtaining various services and products that help them
splice genes.

The development of Chinese “super soldiers” is probably a long way off, but these concerns should be taken
seriously and monitored closely. It is plausible that the People’s Liberation Army would be interested in
improving soldier survivability and CRISPR has that potential to someday improve human performance on
the battlefield. And don’t forget Russia. The Russians may lag behind the Americans and Chinese in gene-
editing research, but Vladimir Putin is always looking for a new military edge.

Brent M. Eastwood, PhD is the Founder and CEO of GovBrain Inc that predicts world events using machine
learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and data science. He is a former military officer
and award-winning economic forecaster. Brent has founded and led companies in sectors such as biometrics
and immersive video. He is also a Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University's Elliott School
of International Affairs.
Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative

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