Russian biologist seeks to edit human embryo genes with CRISPR: shots



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CRISPR technology already allows scientists to make very precise modifications in DNA, and can revolutionize the way doctors prevent and treat many diseases. But using it to raise babies edited by genes is still widely considered unethical.

Gregor Fischer / alliance of images via Getty Images


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Gregor Fischer / alliance of images via Getty Images

CRISPR technology already allows scientists to make very precise modifications in DNA, and can revolutionize the way doctors prevent and treat many diseases. But using it to raise babies edited by genes is still widely considered unethical.

Gregor Fischer / alliance of images via Getty Images

A Russian scientist says he wants to raise more genetically modified babies, dismissing international objections that such a step would be premature, unethical and irresponsible.

Denis Rebrikov, a molecular biologist who runs a gene-editing laboratory at the Kulakov National Center for Medical Research in Obstetrics, Gynecology and Perinatology in Moscow, claims to have developed a safe – and therefore acceptable – way to create babies edited by genes.

"How can it be unethical if we do [a] healthy baby instead of sick? "Rebrikov told NPR during his first broadcast interview." Because? Because [is it] Unethical?"

Rebrikov wants to raise babies from embryos whose DNA he would edit to protect children from HIV. Rebrikov would edit a gene called CCR5 to replicate a natural variation that protects people from HIV.

"The rationale is to make sure the baby is HIV negative – that's it," says Rebrikov.

It is the same reasoning given by a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, when he created the first babies edited by genes in the world. The birth of genetically engineered twin girls last year triggered an international storm as well as calls for a global moratorium on raising genetically modified babies until this can be demonstrated as safe and necessary.

Rebrikov says his research has shown that it is possible to make accurate genetic changes in embryos using the CRISPR gene-editing technique. He claims to have verified safety by comparing the DNA of edited embryos with the unedited DNA of the couples used to create them.

"My experiments show that, yes, it is safe. We have demonstrated that it is safe to use," says Rebrikov, who is also a researcher at the Russian University of Russian National Research in Pirogov, Moscow.

Babies raised by the Chinese scientist had a father who was HIV positive. Rebrikov says preventing infection in babies born to HIV-positive women is more justifiable when a woman does not respond to antiviral drugs. These children are at high risk of becoming infected.

Rebrikov says he plans to confirm his research with additional experiments before proceeding and would only advance if he obtained government approval. Rebrikov says she has already identified two HIV-positive women who would be interested in trying to have genetically modified babies, and he plans to seek approval within a few months.

Rebrikov's plans were first reported in the journal Nature. He says he may also try using his technique to create babies edited by genes for other reasons, such as preventing hereditary forms of deafness.

But Sergey Kutsev, the senior geneticist and geneticist at Russia's Ministry of Health, told NPR he doubted the government would authorize Rebrikov's experience.

"I am confident that Denis Rebrikov has no chance of obtaining approval from the Ministry of Health to this day," Kutsev told NPR. He says the safety and usefulness of technology need to be proven first.

One concern, says Kutsev, is to inadvertently create mutations that can lead to cancer or other diseases – changes that can also be passed on through future generations. "So this is certainly unacceptable at the moment," he says.

Other scientists are also deeply skeptical of Rebrikov's claims.

"The data is weak," says Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a scientist at Oregon Health & Science University who was the first to use CRISPR precisely to edit genes in human embryos.

"The technology is not ready," agrees Dieter Egli, a Columbia University scientist who tries to find safe ways to edit DNA into human embryos.

Many scientists and bioethicists argue that doing what Rebrikov proposes would be unethical and unnecessary because there are other ways to prevent HIV infection, as well as most genetic disorders.

"This is irresponsible," says R. Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin-Madison bioethicist who is helping the World Health Organization try to police gene editing. "My biggest concern is that he will bring the birth of children who will suffer because he wanted to play."

One day, it may be considered safe and appropriate to use gene-engineered embryos to prevent rare but devastating genetic diseases in infants, say Charo and others.

But it's too early to try this before science has been tested much more carefully and before broad social debates have been conducted on ethics and morality, she says.

"Experiences such as this – such dishonest scientists, cowboys like this – give technology a bad reputation that leads to overreactions from legislatures and other government organizations," says Charo, "and can lead to wholesale bans that are unjustified or reckless. "

Some suspect Rebrikov's allegations may be a publicity stunt aimed at getting government funding.

A competition is underway for about $ 2 billion in new government funds designed to boost Russian genetic research, according to Konstantin Severinov, a Russian scientist who divides his time between Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow.

"So when making statements like this, if you believe there is not a bad PR, you can at least get attention," says Severinov.

Some other scientists, while warning that it may be premature, argue that there are always risks with new technologies.

"This is being meticulously examined, and I think that's a good thing," says George Church, a prominent geneticist at Harvard University. "But I would not rule things out a priori because we can not perfectly describe the risk and the benefits." We should cautiously go forward and ask: "Is there a real setback here?"

Even if Rebrikov could do what he wants safely, some critics say, the move could lead to attempts to use gene editing for other reasons that are far less acceptable.

"The main danger I see is the slippery slope of irresponsible and dangerous human growth," says Fyodor Urnov of the Institute of Innovative Genomics at the University of California. "That could open the door to try to raise babies designed."

None of this is possible today – and may never be. But Rebrikov says he thinks it will someday be possible. And he thinks it might be a good idea.

"For me, I would like to be smarter, maybe stronger, and faster," he says. "I think it's the next step in the future, people would like to make these babies smarter, for example.

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