Following claims last year in China of the creation of twins from edited embryos, a Russian is now promising to do the same, according to a new report.
Molecular biologist Denis Rebrikov says he is planning to produce gene-edited babies. He told Nature, the international journal of science, that he is also considering implanting gene-edited embryos into women, a process which he said may happen by the end of the year if he can obtain all approvals.
Rebrikov told Nature that his experiment would target the same gene, CCR5, that Chinese scientist He Jiankui did. “But Rebrikov claims his technique will offer greater benefits, pose fewer risks and be more ethically justifiable and acceptable to the public,” Nature reported.
Between March 2017 and November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui worked on an experiment that eventually resulted in two pregnancies. He altered their genes as embryos with the aim of making them resistant to their father’s HIV infection, the Wall Street Journal reported. Chinese officials declared He’s experiment illegal and detained him, and the Chinese scientist’s work remains highly controversial, as gene-editing trials are underway on terminally ill patients.
Rebrikov, who heads a genome-editing laboratory at Russia’s largest fertility clinic in Moscow, told Nature he intends to take extend He’s research by looking at modifying embryos in order to become HIV resistant when implanted into HIV-positive mothers. This is significant as mothers are more likely to pass on the HIV virus to their children than fathers are.
Rebrikov has not received approval from the government, which in turn needs to clarify its own regulations governing gene editing.
The scientific community, meanwhile, is asking for greater regulation for gene-edited embryos, as Chinese scientists recently announced that they now tripled the efficiency of a new gene editing tool that modifies DNA at record levels of safety and precision.
“Safe production of gene-edited babies could be possible in just one or two years, and the head of China’s leading genetic research program says the need is now urgent for international regulations to prevent the technology being used as a weapon of mass destruction,” writes Stephen Chen of the South China Morning Post.
In the Nature report, scientists expressed concern over Rebrikov’s announcement. “The technology is not ready,” said Jennifer Doudna, a University of California Berkeley molecular biologist who helped develop the gene-editing technique called CRISPR. “It is not surprising, but it is very disappointing and unsettling.”