Better supervision of research urged

Updated: 2012-12-13 09:03

By Wang Qingyun (China Daily)

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Genetically modified rice project reveals lack of scientific ethics

The controversial genetically modified rice experiment in Hunan province shows that science research projects in China need tighter supervision, said Deng Haihua, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health.

"The incident has revealed that individual scientific researchers lack understanding of laws and self-discipline regarding scientific ethics. Some individual projects have not been well supervised by the institutes responsible," Deng said on Wednesday. "The ministry has required institutes to improve the supervision of their projects while encouraging international cooperation in scientific research."

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement on Dec 6 saying that researchers in an experiment on Vitamin A efficiency - which tested genetically modified rice on schoolchildren in Hengyang, Hunan, in May and June 2008 - kept health authorities and subjects in the dark.

Guangwen Tang, a researcher at Tufts University in the United States who was responsible for the project, brought the GM rice to China for the experiment.

Tang and her Chinese counterparts in charge of the project told the parents that their children would eat "rice rich in carotenoid" and "purposely concealed" the fact that the rice was genetically modified, said the statement.

The China CDC also said authorities learned in July 2008 that the experiment used GM rice and they conducted an investigation, but Yin Shi'an from China CDC's institute of nutrition and food safety and Wang Yin from the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences, the other two in charge of the experiment, "lied and said the research had not started yet".

In August, Tang published a paper on beta-carotene in GM rice in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which she co-wrote with others, including Yin and Wang, in which she cited the experiment in Hunan in 2008, saying the study recruitment processes and protocol were approved by the Institutional Review Board, Tufts Medical Center and the Ethics Review Committee of the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences in China.

The Zhejiang academy admitted on Sept 7 that its committee of ethics had approved the project in 2003, but it had no idea that its experiment in 2008 tested GM rice.

Yin and Wang were fired for academic misconduct.

Hu Yuming, a researcher at the Hunan Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, another Chinese author of the paper, was fired as the assistant director of the center for slack supervision of the experiment.

Yin admitted in an interview with China Central Television that aired on Dec 8 that the project's team translated "golden rice", a type of GM rice, into "rice containing rich carotene" in the Chinese version of the informed consent agreed to by the parents in an attempt to avoid sensitivity.

Zhai Xiaomei, a member of the medical ethics expert committee under the Ministry of Health, believed that part of the reason for concealing the fact that the rice was genetically modified may be people's irrational fear about GM food, though food such as oil made from GM soy beans has been widely sold in China.

"There is not yet evidence showing GM food is either safe or hazardous," she said. "However, they were not justified in keeping the subjects and their parents in the dark. One of the prerequisites to conducting such experiments is consent based on total information."

The Health Ministry in 2007 issued a regulation on ethics reviews of biomedical experiments on humans, stipulating that nobody is allowed to trick or threaten people into agreeing to be subjects, and that the subject has the right to back out at any stage of the experiment.

Besides deliberately lowering the standards in an ethics review, ethics committees, especially those at grassroots medical institutes, lack the capacity to judge the validity of an experiment, Zhai said.

"Grassroots workers need more training to prevent similar incidents from happening," she said.