Recent announcements by Russian and Chinese scientists state that, despite the objections of many in the scientific community, they will continue to create CRISPR-edited babies.
The Russian molecular biologist Denis Rebrikov is working to create gene-edited babies following a Chinese scientist who claimed to have created twins from edited embryos last year. Rebrikov plans to disable the gene, which encodes a protein that allows HIV to enter cells, in embryos that will be implanted into HIV-positive mothers, reducing the risk of them passing on the virus to the baby in utero. Rebrikov already has an agreement with an HIV Centre in the city to recruit women infected with HIV who want to take part in the experiment.
A Chinese scientist prompted an international outcry when he announced last November that he had made the world’s first gene-edited babies — twin girls. In a clinical trial that is still largely shrouded in mystery, a team of scientists led by He Jiankui of China’s Southern University of Science and Technology used CRISPR to alter the genome of human embryos. Specifically, they knocked out a gene that makes people susceptible to HIV, smallpox, and cholera. Later, The Associated Press claimed that one of those embryos survived and resulted in a successful birth. The consensus in the field of gene editing is that any human trials, especially those that would result in living, breathing, gene-edited humans, must undergo thorough and transparent review by ethicists and other doctors — more or less the opposite of how this new experiment was handled. As a result, Jankui is now under investigation by the Chinese government, according to MIT Tech.
Efforts to Regulate Gene-editing Embryos
Although implanting gene-edited embryos is banned in many countries, the regulations in Russia and China are a bit ambiguous. Researchers agree that the technology might, one day, help to eliminate genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis, but much more testing is needed before it is used in the alteration of human beings.
Currently, a World Health Organization Committee is formulating ethical governance policies for human genome editing. Until this is done, many other scientists, including Jennifer Doudna, a University of California Berkeley molecular biologist who pioneered the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing system that Rebrikov plans to use find his announcement “very disappointing and unsettling.” In addition to the World Health Organization, the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK’s Royal Society and other prominent organizations have all discussed how to stop unethical and dangerous uses of genome editing in humans.