August 14, 2022

Russian scientist plans to edit human germline

Scientists are outraged

A Russian biologist has announced that he plans to create gene-edited human embryos. Molecular biologist Denis Rebrikov told Nature that he wants to reprise the experiment carried out by disgraced Chinese scientist He Jiankui last year –- with some modifications.

The news has sparked horrified reactions amongst well-known stem cell scientists who fear that cowboys in their field could badly damage its reputation. Echoing the consensus of bioethicists, Alta Charo, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Nature that using CRISPR to edit the human genome is irresponsible, given the current state of the science.

Like He, Rebrikov plans to disable the CCR5 gene to make the children less susceptible to HIV. But while He recruited fathers with HIV, Rebrikov’s research is aimed at mothers. Nature says that his scheme is supposed to “offer greater benefits, pose fewer risks and be more ethically justifiable and acceptable to the public”.

Rebrikov insists that he will stay on the right side of the law. But the law on genetic engineering in Russia is murky. He has applied for approval from three government agencies and feels confident that his proposal will be given a green light. “Russia now … is a good country to do this type of experiments,” he told Science. “It’s not very free in politics, but it’s very free in science.”

What about criticism from other scientists? Rebrikov is philosophical: “[in] Any life system, 90% of a population is very conservative. That’s normal. And maybe 5% is progressive. We just need to wait some time, maybe some years. And we need very good clinical cases to show people that this instrumentation is powerful, but it’s safe and has good results.”

In an editorial, Nature called upon the scientific community to intervene and persuade Rebrikov to halt his experiment. “The one thing that almost everyone agrees on is that, right now, it is irresponsible to pursue further human germline editing to make babies,” it argues.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge.

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