2018 Online - Silver

Sarah Zhang visited a facility in the Guangdong province of China where researchers are tinkering with monkey brains to better understand the most severe forms of autism. It is research that is too expensive, too impractical and perhaps too ethically sensitive to be carried out in the United States. The researchers use CRISPR, a powerful new gene-editing technique, that enables scientists to zero in on and disable specific genes. Zhang recounted the research of Guoping Feng, who holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT but who now travels to China several times a year to pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. Feng is looking at mutations in a gene called Shank3 which are found in 1 to 2 percent of cases of autism spectrum disorder, including some of the most severe cases. Primate centers in the United States have done important work on diseases such as HIV, Zika and Ebola, but intense scrutiny by animal rights groups and others have led to closure of some centers and migration of research projects overseas. Zhang did not shy away from the issues raised by continued research on primates and discussed them frankly with Feng. Judge Guy Gugliotta, a freelance science writer, called Zhang’s piece “a dispassionate treatment of the controversy surrounding primate testing in medical research, told from the viewpoint of an American scientist working with monkeys in China.” Zhang said her story is “about the outer limits of neuroscience research, how we define those limits, and how it is playing out across the world stage.” She noted her personal interest in the story since, like the scientist she profiled, her father also had left China for better opportunities in science in the United States.