A majority of Chinese people support the study of gene editing and its legalization for the purpose of treating diseases, according to an online survey of several thousand people carried out by Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU). The survey, sent to Sixth Tone on Friday, is the first-ever poll of Chinese people’s views on the therapeutic uses of gene editing.
Launched in June by the university in southern China’s Guangdong province and the Key Laboratory of Public Opinion in Big Data Analysis and Simulation, a research institute affiliated with it, the survey received responses from 4,771 people, 575 of whom have HIV, over the course of four months. The results show that 68 percent of people polled support the research, development, and application of gene-editing technology, with respondents who have HIV being 89 percent in favor. All respondents were between 12 and 67 years old, with an average age of 24.
Chen Liang, a principal investigator and associate professor at Sun Yat-sen University’s School of Communication and Design, told Sixth Tone that compared with the U.S. — where a 2017 survey published in the academic journal Science showed that 59 percent of American respondents supported the therapeutic use of gene editing — Chinese people are “slightly more positive” when it comes to researching and applying the technology. Gene editing involves replacing, inserting, deleting, or modifying genetic sequences in a living organism; sometimes these changes can affect the organism’s physiology.
According to the Chinese survey, 81 percent of respondents said they supported the legalization of gene editing for treating hereditary cardiovascular disease. Similarly, correcting cancer-causing mutations, decreasing the possibility of dementia, and preventing HIV infections each received over 70 percent approval. Finally, 76 percent of people also said gene editing for prolonging lifespans should be legalized.
On the other hand, just 24 percent of respondents voted in favor of legalizing gene editing for enhancing intelligence, 22 percent for improving athletic ability, and 11 percent for altering physical appearance. “As in the U.S. and the U.K., Chinese people reject gene editing for human enhancement,” Chen said. U.S. surveys in 2016 showed evidence of the American public’s concerns in using the technology to engineer better humans, especially for so-called designer babies.
The Chinese survey asked each respondent four “right or wrong” questions to assess how well they understood the concept of gene editing: Examples included “At present, gene-editing technology cannot change a baby’s gender” (right) and “Gene editing is used to diagnose infectious diseases” (wrong). Around two-thirds of respondents answered two or fewer questions correctly.
Notably, the survey also shows that most respondents believe that the government — and not themselves, or even scientists — should determine the scope of gene-editing applications. “People have little knowledge of this field, so they trust the government when it comes to making regulations,” Zhang Zhi’an, director of the research project and dean of the School of Communication and Design, told Sixth Tone.
And unlike in the U.S. and the U.K., where there are strict restrictions on human trials for gene editing, the absence of such barriers in China has — for better or worse — allowed its scientists to take the lead in projects around the globe. But the current dearth of rules for gene-editing studies doesn’t mean that experts like Zhang and Chen don’t want them. “The government and scholars in this field should take an active role in establishing regulations for the uses of gene-editing technology,” Chen said.
The SYSU survey did not specifically touch on ethical issues because of the risk that doing so might influence people’s natural responses to the questions presented.
“Our survey shows gene editing has a good social foundation, and there’s urgent demand in China,” Chen said. “The government, as well as mass media and scholars, should shoulder the responsibility of presenting accurate information to the public and acting as guardians on ethical issues.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A researcher draws a sample from a micro test tube at a lab in Qingdao, Shandong province, May 29, 2018. Yu Fangping/VCG)