Recent studies by researchers in the U.S. and the U.K. using Chinese genome data have angered Chinese scientists, who argue that providing this data too liberally gives foreign universities an unfair advantage.
One such study, published July 13 on bioRxiv, a website for not-yet-peer-reviewed scholarly articles in life sciences, sought to explain the genetic variations among Han Chinese by looking at the whole-genome sequencing of more than 10,000 women from China’s dominant ethnic group.
“We were surprised that research with such a large volume of Chinese genetic data was led by foreign scientists,” Qiu Zilong, a researcher at the Institute of Neuroscience of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Sixth Tone. The first author and the seven corresponding authors all work at foreign universities, which means Chinese scientists contributed very little to the research beyond providing the raw data, Qiu added.
One concern with having foreign institutions lead research in Chinese genetics is that treatments for diseases common in China may be discovered and patented abroad. “Pathological genetic data is critical to finding cures for diseases,” said Zheng Houfeng, a professor at the School of Life and Environmental Science at Hangzhou Normal University in the eastern province of Zhejiang. “It would be better for Chinese scientists to lead such research,” he told Sixth Tone.
The controversy was reported Thursday by The Intellectual, a public account on messaging app WeChat run by prominent Chinese scientists. The article questioned whether the apparently liberal sharing of genetic data was in line with national and international scientific standards.
The data used by the July 13 study came from the CONVERGE project — a multiyear investigation into the genetics of severe depression in Chinese women, conducted by the University of Oxford in the U.K., Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in the U.S., and Huashan Hospital, affiliated with Shanghai’s Fudan University.
Another study published earlier this year by a group of mostly U.K.-based scientists provided links to download the CONVERGE project’s genetic data. And in 2015, a team of scientists from Oxford and VCU — most of whom are also credited in both later studies — identified genetic factors that may contribute to depression. This paper, published in Nature, also provides a link to the genetic data from the CONVERGE project.
“International academic standards encourage the sharing of data, but pathological gene data from the U.S. and the U.K. are seldom published in this way,” said Qiu, referring to the Chinese genetic data being made publicly available. “And researchers would have to go through complicated applications to use the data.”
For example, the 100,000 Genomes Project, a gene-sequencing project similar to CONVERGE but led by the British government, restricts its data for mostly internal use. Outside researchers have to submit a detailed research plan for approval; if given the go-ahead, they can expect to have their use of the data closely monitored.
China allows for foreign cooperation in genetic research as long as “the distribution of intellectual property is reasonable and clear,” according to a regulation published in 1998 by the Ministry of Science and Technology.
The Intellectual quoted an anonymous insider as saying that the Chinese party involved in the July 13 study was disciplined because the gene sequencing was not authorized by the Ministry of Science and Technology, as is necessary when working with international partners.
Sixth Tone was unable to verify this allegation. Shi Shenxun, a principal investigator for the CONVERGE project and a professor of psychiatry at Fudan University, refused Sixth Tone’s interview request on Friday. Email interview requests to lead authors of the two studies published this year from Oxford and the University of California, Los Angeles, went unanswered. The earlier 2017 study stated that its protocol had been approved by Oxford’s ethical review board and by the ethics committees of all participating Chinese hospitals.
With more than 10,000 DNA samples, the CONVERGE project is the world’s largest dossier of Han Chinese genetic data, according to Zheng of Hangzhou Normal University. In comparison, the 100,000 Genomes Project, an ambitious plan to sequence the genomes of 26 human ethnic groups, has only 314 Chinese samples among its 2,504 gene-sequenced individuals.
“We have top scientists who have published top articles in the field of genetic research,” said Qiu. “Why hand all the data over to foreign scientists when we are capable of studying it ourselves?”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Blood samples are seen at a laboratory in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Dec. 6, 2006. Shi Peng/VCG)