The Chinese Way to Manage Stem-Cell Research

Have the government butt out.

The Economist reports that Chinese researchers are doing world-class stem-cell research, but they identify a problem - they don't think that Chinese medical research is regulated tightly enough.  Their article opens:

In the field of stem cells, China is showing that it can do world-class science. It is a shame, then, that so many fraudsters operate and that officialdom turns a blind eye.

Their tone of viewing with alarm continues into the body of the report:

A Confucian rejection of the idea that embryos are in any meaningful sense human beings (a view shared by many Koreans), together with the possibility of stealing a march on the diffident West, has stimulated a lot of research into stem cells in China. And not only research. Chinese clinics have moved with what many foreign scientists regard as indecent haste into the offering of therapies. Patients from around the world fly in for the treatment of conditions ranging from autism to spinal-cord injury-treatments that are rarely based on science that would pass muster with the authorities in most rich countries, and are often outright frauds.

The point of studying stem cells is that a stem cell can turn into any one of the body's hundreds of different cell types.  If you break a nerve connecting your brain to your hand, for example, you'll be paralyzed unless the nerve grows back.  Human nerves seldom do that, but stem cells offer the potential to grow new nerve cells to give you back the use of your hand.

Stem cells offer so much promise that they're being studied all over the world.  Chinese researchers are world class, but the Economist is afraid that Chinese entrepreneurs are selling unproven cures.

China's health ministry has, however, turned a blind eye to the unauthorised stem-cell therapies offered by hundreds of hospitals under its jurisdiction. One company in particular, Beike Biotechnology in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, is notorious for its internet claims and marketing efforts in countries around the world. It claims to supply stem cells to a network of more than two dozen hospitals in China and one in Thailand for treating myriad conditions at a cost of about $20,000 a pop.

Beike says it has treated over 6,000 patients, but it has yet to publish any papers in internationally recognised, peer-reviewed journals. Yet it seems to have powerful friends. It claims to have received funding from the China State National Fund and Shenzhen municipality. It also claims to have members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering on its scientific advisory board. And Xinhua, China's state press agency, calls Beike "a global leader in stem-cell research and treatment through evidence-based medicine".  [emphasis added]

First of all, what's so special about "peer reviewed" journals?  The emails leaked during Climategate showed that the peer review process has been manipulated when "respected" scientists sought to suppress competing studies which indicated that global warming wasn't as scary as they wanted taxpayers to believe.  Given what we now know about "peer review," we can sympathize with Chinese reluctance to get involved.

Furthermore, why should the Chinese give away hard-won, commercially-valuable knowledge?  Researchers in the US are not supposed to profit from federally-funded research, at least not much.  They're supposed to get their rewards from being published and honored while leaving the profits to their universities and to drug merchants.  Can anyone blame Chinese researchers for not wanting to be exploited like unpaid college football stars?

Finally, how does one test a new medical treatment?  One tries it.  If you're in the United States, you have to genuflect to the FDA and jump through myriad hoops to get permission to test a new therapy, and then you have to pay all the treatment costs yourself until it's approved.  Thus, only obscenely well-funded organizations can afford to carry out medical research - it costs about a billion dollars to get any new treatment through the approval process.

The Chinese approach, while perhaps a bit rough on early-adopters who line up to pay to have new therapies tested on them, will almost certainly lead to faster progress than the hidebound FDA approach.  Not only are there far fewer regulatory hurdles to testing a new treatment, you can ask the patients to pay for your tests!

That's why a promising new cancer therapy is being tested in China rather than in the United States.  It's so out-of-the-box that there's no way to get the FDA to even consider approving a trial.  Since it would be illegal to test it in the US and the Chinese were receptive, it was a no-brainer to move the research offshore.

The Chinese approach may lead to more patient deaths as new therapies are tested too early, but it will probably save lives overall as workable treatments are found and debugged faster.

On the whole, we disagree with the Economist.  As long as full disclosure of the risks is made to the patients so they can give their informed consent, we believe that the Chinese approach will save more lives due to treatments being tested faster than it costs as dangerous therapies are tried too soon.  Only time will tell.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
The "Economist" demand for regulation is a subtle cry for let's allow people who have no moral authority- let alone personal interest- be controlling the lives & actions of others, a resort to the rather primitive notion that men should be either slaves or masters, a not particularly effective economic model I would wish to live under.
I doubt the concept of either choice or reason enters into the minds of those who advocate laws for the good of all.. presuming they have minds to choose to ignore facts.
I seem to recall the past administration was aghast at stem cell research, claiming it is akin to abortions and disrespectful to human life: like the current set of thugs in DC, even privately funded research might have been met with criminal charges, let alone the lawsuits from attempting to initiate research into therapy, suggesting that the use of one's religious tenets in establishing control over others' behaviour is not a valid form of reasoning.
I think the Chinese have it right on this one
March 5, 2010 8:19 AM
I think the Chinese deliver it powerful on this one
This is necessary to avoid serious threats arising from their actions immoral.
I uncertainty the construct of either option or reasonableness accedes into the ideas of those who preach polices for the effective of whole.. Assuming they've heeds to select to disregard realities.
Another important thing that must be done by Chinese in my opinion is to rebuild their religious moral order also become important considerations in any action
March 5, 2010 6:47 PM
I don't think the Chinese approach is a better way compared to the FDA authorized trials that are conducted in many other parts of world like US. Stem cell research is a very sensitive topic as it has a inborn potential to go into the wrong hands. The stem cell culture is the begining stone in human cloning . So if the technology fell into wrong hands or if there is no control from higher authorities , the copanies may even try on cloning which will be disastrous. It is good to have new therapeutic inventions are generated , but it should be properly regulated so as to preserve its moral ethics.
March 5, 2010 7:46 PM
"Another important thing .. is to rebuild their religious moral order "- you don't think the Chinese have suffered enough moral indoctrination by their government? Perhaps a dose of Liberty is more in order, with an emphasis on independent thought and not religious dogma.
Mr Sajith begs the question of what constitutes "moral authority"- is he suggesting either the fools in Congress or their equally immoral cohort in the White House? The one who lived there in the early part of this century felt science was irrelevant, and religious radicals competent for determining that agenda in a similar manner to climate change fanatics: neither is appropriate in a free and open dialogue regarding a moral issue.
March 5, 2010 11:39 PM
I accept the Chinese deliver, it's a powerfull.
March 6, 2010 8:45 PM
I thinks chinese approach that is a good idea, we must see from the other side, ecomonist and moral always contradict, it need proof to judge about moral.
March 8, 2010 2:29 AM
@Isrul: you are saying it takes reason & thought to develop morals? You are so correct, they are not the domain of myth nor religion, but belong in the province of men's minds- have you a proposal?
March 8, 2010 8:58 AM
That's a very practical point of view, to say the least. The Chinese do not bother themselves with trifle things like morality and ethics. That is why science blooms there profusely.
March 12, 2010 2:38 AM
Actually one cannot escape "trifles" like morality.. their political system of rights' abuses is not offset by a inquiring nature, which, like seeking truth, is of the highest moral calibre; are you suggesting it is wrong to investigate life, and methods of curing disease or trauma? Mr Bush obviously thought so, but he also thought Americans' rights as trifles as well, siding with the Chinese politicians in that citizens are fodder and worthy of contempt.
See? One cannot escape moral choices, but one can admit one is wrong and move on: supporting one's past foibles, knowing they are wrong, is still wrong...
March 12, 2010 8:59 AM
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