Coming undone

Celebrated Chinese scientist under question


Han Chunyu: did he or didn’t he make a DNA breakthrough?

There was a time when China was the most scientifically advanced society in the world, pioneering new inventions like the compass, gunpowder and the printing press. But in the lead-up to its self-titled Century of Humiliations, (a period that began with the nineteenth century Opium Wars and saw it occupied by colonial powers) it was viewed by most outsiders as hopelessly backward.

In more recent times – and particularly with leader Xi Jinping’s clarion call for a ‘Great Rejuvenation’ – China has been trying to reassert itself as a leading player in scientific innovation.

Earlier this year there looked to be a new poster boy for the campaign: Han Chunyu, a scientist who had never even travelled overseas. The Chinese government has invested in coaxing foreign-educated scientists to come back to China, as well as enticing international scientists too, so Han’s homegrown status made him a notable exception.

Born in 1974 in Hebei province, Han completed his bachelor’s degree in his home province before moving to neighbouring Beijing for his master’s and doctoral studies. Shortly after receiving his PhD, he returned to Hebei and took up employment at Hebei University of Science and Technology (HUST).

In May this year he published a paper in the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology purporting to have discovered a new method for editing mammal DNA: a breakthrough the Chinese media described as “astounding the world with a single feat”.

The prevailing technique for editing DNA was developed in the West and is a method dubbed CRISPR-Cas9, which uses small genetic sequences to guide an enzyme to cut DNA in a particular location.

Han’s new method, NgAgo-gDNA, is more accurate, specifically cutting only the target genes, says Han, unlike CRISPR–Cas9, which sometimes edits the wrong genes.

“Thus in theory, NgAgo’s failure rate is much lower,” he explains.

Han’s breakthrough excited the scientific community, reports Caixin Weekly, and indeed the notion that a domestically-educated scientist could take the global lead in biotech was a thrill for the industry across China.

It also raised the question of how many other talented Chinese scientists were being denied their true potential due to underfunding, the magazine noted.

A major selling point for Han’s story was his humble origins and setting. Caixin claimed one of his colleagues would sleep in the lab to save money, and that most of his assistants are studying for their master’s, not doctorates.

“Our centrifuge only does about 12,000rpm,” Han said of his sub-par equipment (a high level centrifuge can go up to 70,000rpm).

But the story of Han’s breakthrough has turned controversial. In July a geneticist at the Australian National University posted on his blog that he had been unable to recreate the results of Han’s experiments using a different sequence of genes. Nature, a journal, then reported in August that 96 other researchers had been unable to prove Han’s findings, while only nine were able to do so.

According to the journal, Han has offered a series of explanations for the failings of the 96 researchers, including that the cells they are experimenting on could be infected with mycoplasma. He says that he has only got the system to work on cells cultured in his laboratory, and that it failed in cells that he purchased.

As doubts have grown around Han’s new protocol other Chinese scientists have questioned the method too. According to the Global Times, practitioners from prestigious institutions such as Peking University, Zhejiang University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences cannot replicate the results either and they have urged Han to publish his raw data. Fang Shimin, a former biochemist who has made a name for himself by exposing fraudulent scientists, says that Han’s paper was flawed. Other detractors have turned their attention to Han’s department, demanding that it preserve the “reputation of Chinese scientists”. In August the university told Xinhua that Han would “publicly verify” his findings under the supervision of an “authoritative third party”, although the results of the study are yet to be announced.

Han stands by his claims, however. “I beg everyone to be a bit more patient. I [insist] what I said before [is true], but there will be new information soon,” he told the Science and Technology Daily. He says that five other laboratories have confirmed his findings, but that he is keeping their identities secret for reasons he has not disclosed.

If Han’s findings are found to be flawed it will be an embarrassment for all concerned, especially for his university, which received Rmb224 million ($33.21 million) in funding in August to establish a research centre for genome editing.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.