June 21, 2019
Heard on Morning Edition – A Russian scientist says he wants to create more genetically modified babies, flouting international objections that such a step would be premature, unethical and irresponsible.
Denis Rebrikov, a molecular biologist who heads a gene-editing lab at the Kulakov National Medical Research Center for Obstetrics, Gynecology and Perinatology in Moscow, claims he has developed a safe — and therefore acceptable — way to create gene-edited babies.
“How it can be unethical if we will make [a] healthy baby instead of diseased?” Rebrikov told NPR during his first broadcast interview. “Why? Why [is it] unethical?”
Rebrikov wants to create babies from embryos whose DNA he would edit to protect the resulting children from HIV. Rebrikov would edit a gene called CCR5 to replicate a naturally occurring variation that protects people from HIV.
“The rationale is to guarantee that the baby will be HIV-negative — that’s it,” Rebrikov says.
It’s the same rationale given by a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, when he created the world’s first gene-edited babies. The birth of the gene-modified twin Chinese girls last year triggered an international firestorm, as well as calls for a global moratorium on creating gene-edited babies until doing so can be demonstrated to be safe and necessary.
Rebrikov says his research has shown that it’s possible to make precise genetic changes in embryos using the gene-editing technique CRISPR. He claims to have verified the 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’s safe. We demonstrated it’s safe to use,” says Rebrikov, who is also a researcher at the Pirogov Russian National Research Medical University in Moscow.
The babies created 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 doesn’t respond to antiviral drugs. Those children are at high risk of becoming infected. Read more.