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.”
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 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.
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, 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.