BEIJING — China is spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually in an effort to become a leader in biomedical research, building scores of laboratories and training thousands of scientists.
But the rush to the front ranks of science may come at a price: Some experts worry that medical researchers in China are stepping over ethical boundaries long accepted in the West.
Scientists around the world were shocked in April when a team led by Huang Junjiu, 34, at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, published the results of an experiment in editing the genes of human embryos.
The technology, called Crispr-Cas9, may one day be used to eradicate inheritable illnesses. But in theory, it also could be used to change such traits as eye color or intelligence, and to ensure that the changes are passed on to future generations.
Dr. Huang and his colleagues tried to modify a gene that causes a blood disorder called beta-thalassemia. The experiment failed in 85 embryos. Even so, to many in global science, it was a line that should not have been crossed.
CreditGilles Sabrie for The New York Times
Scientists in the West generally abjure this sort of research on the grounds that it amounts to genetic engineering of humans. In any event, the technology is still in the earliest stages of development.
“The consensus among the scientific community is, ‘not for now,’ ” said Huso Yi, the director of research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Centre for Bioethics.
Yet Chinese scientists seem in no mood to wait.
“I don’t think China wants to take a moratorium,” Mr. Yi said. “People are saying they can’t stop the train of mainland Chinese genetics because it’s going too fast.”
China is quickly building infrastructure for scientific research.
In 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, the state invested more than 1.18 trillion renminbi, or $190 billion, which is more than 2 percent of its gross domestic product, in “the development of scientific research and experimentation,” according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
In 2011, the state invested about $140 billion, or 1.84 percent of its G.D.P., the bureau said.
“The gap between China’s new bioscience technologies and that of the West is closing,” said Zhao Xiaomei, a member of the country’s National Medical Ethical Committee and a professor at Peking Union Medical College.
But the research juggernaut is gathering momentum in a country where training in ethics for scientists was introduced, under pressure from the West, only a dozen years ago.
“The ‘red line’ in the West and in China are not too similar,” Deng Rui, a medical ethicist at Shanxi Medical University, said in a telephone interview. “Ethics are a question of culture, and that is about tradition, especially where it touches on human life.”
“Confucian thinking says that someone becomes a person after they are born. That is different from the United States or other countries with a Christian influence, where because of religion they may feel research on embryos is not O.K.”
The state does set limits, Ms. Deng said: “Our ‘red line’ here is that you can only experiment on embryos that are younger than 14 days old.”
The proscription is contained in a document issued by the health and science ministries in 2003. It now urgently needs updating, she said.
Chinese scientists adhere to globally accepted ethical and scientific norms, said Ms. Zhai Xiaomei, a member of the country’s National Medical Ethical Committee and a professor at Peking Union Medical College.
But many scientists experience pressure not to do so, she acknowledged.
“Inside China, there are people who are opposed to international standards, citing cultural differences,” Ms. Zhai said. “This force is actually quite powerful sometimes.”
“For example, they say we should use our homegrown Confucian thoughts to solve problems, as those international standards are from the West while we have our Eastern culture. But we absolutely disagree with this point of view.”
In the case of Dr. Huang’s experiment, the national committee decided that it was ethically acceptable because it “was not for reproductive purposes,” Ms. Zhai said, a stance that surprised some overseas scientists.
“They chose to use embryos that would soon be destroyed. So far, we have been regarding it as a very fundamental research, instead of interventions in or editing of germ cells,” Ms. Zhai said.
But she struck a warning note: “If you want to edit genes in germ cells with the intention of using this right away, it’s absolutely not O.K., because the technology has yet to become mature.”
Disturbed by the recent study, Rao Yi, a professor of biology and director of the four-year-old Center of Life Sciences at Peking University, run jointly with Tsinghua University, warned that scientific research in China urgently needed more effective ethical oversight.
“The more technology we have, the more dangerous we are to ourselves and entire humankind,” Mr. Rao said.
Chinese scientists are generally poorly paid, he said, but may receive a bonus of up to $32,000 per article from the state for publishing in international scientific journals, providing financial incentives for pushing the boundaries.
“Do first, talk later” is the attitude of many, Mr. Rao and two colleagues wrote recently on iScientist, an online community for Chinese researchers.
A global medical ethics body run by the World Health Organization or the United Nations should be set up to regulate scientific experimentation, Mr. Rao said.
More unpleasant scientific surprises are looming, several scientists said. “Right now, human gene editing is the main thing,” Mr. Yi said. Geneticists in China “don’t want to be guided by Western people.”
The mind-set among Chinese researchers, according to Mr. Yi: “ ‘We’re going to do it, then see what’s wrong, then fix it. But the conceptual discussion may be missing.’ ”