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State of the art sequencing in the proteomics labortory at genomics research company BGI in Shenzhen, China: The company is raising eyebrows, and hackles. (Garrige Ho For the Globe and Mail)
State of the art sequencing in the proteomics labortory at genomics research company BGI in Shenzhen, China: The company is raising eyebrows, and hackles. (Garrige Ho For the Globe and Mail)

Why China is a genetic powerhouse with a problem Add to ...

Dr. Wang, its executive director, says BGI is well aware of such concerns. He insists that it takes extra precautions to ensure that intellectual-property rights are respected: “We align with all international standards, because we are very international too.”

To that end, it has strived to demonstrate that it is independent of state control, in part by distancing itself from Beijing and the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Science by moving to Shenzhen.

However, Dr. Wang does acknowledge the need for government support. And, along with government grants, the company’s major loan of $1.5-billion over 10 years from the state-backed development bank came amid a state infusion of investment designed to ward off economic recession. Not only does the bank lend on generous terms to projects deemed to be in the national interest, repayment is frequently extended significantly to let Chinese companies grow without fear of defaulting.

As well, several of BGI’s senior researchers are still with the science academy, dividing their time between government and company work, and its agriculture operation has been designated a “key state laboratory.” And the company is Beijing’s major partner in a new national gene bank to be housed nearby and to help China protect and make use of its “precious genetic resources,” according to state media.

Like most sizable enterprises in China, state-owned and private, BGI has a Communist Party committee. A banner in the sequencing lab reads: “Only with data can you find truth, and only with truth can you serve the country.”

 

Ethical debate just beginning

In the West, genetic research has long fuelled debates over ethics, privacy and the need to protect data – but less so in China, where the needs of the state have historically trumped individual rights. For instance, some wonder just how China, with its one-child policy, might use genetic technologies on its own people.

“We’ve seen other sorts of human-rights abuses in China,” says Marcy Darnovsky of the non-profit Center for Genetics and Society, based in Berkeley, Calif., noting the risk that prenatal tests could be used to phase out birth defects. “It starts to smack of … eugenics.”

In 2009, CNN reported on a unusual summer camp in Chongqing where children were given DNA tests to try to identify their natural talents so that they could be steered toward suitable careers. Most scientists, including those with BGI, dismiss the notion that such predictive tests have any credibility, but the program indicates how genetic technology could be deployed in the world’s most populous country.

At the same time, U.S. officials keep a constant vigil for examples of intellectual-property theft, and scandals of misappropriated medical data are rampant. This week, the dean of Nanjing University’s pharmacy school was accused of using blood samples from local hospitals without permission to create a private genetic data bank.

But even as the scandal plays out – and BGI staffers await word on the acquisition of Complete Genomics – the mood at the old shoe factory in Shenzhen is brimming with optimism. Researchers here see a new era dawning for China to make a major contribution to global health – one that includes sound ethics.

Qi Ming, the company’s deputy general manager, says BGI is diligent with patient consent forms, has an institutional review board for projects involving humans, and requires that its researchers adhere to standards required by international scientific journals.

“The bigger goal,” Dr. Wang adds, “is, ‘Can we do something good for society?’ ”

Dr. Qi, also director of Zhejiang University’s Centre for Genetic and Genomic Medicine, says BGI’s founders are well equipped to find their way through the ethical minefield. “We started from day one to pay attention to these issues. We all came from the U.S. or European schools so we all have that training.”

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