Few future technologies have caused as much moral debate as the manipulation of the human body – a topic which has been in the public’s mind for decades. For a long time genetic editing was a ‘future topic’, but now – with current technological advancements – the ability to change the structure of the human body is within reach. The question now is whether or not it’s safe.
Biologist Denis Rebrikov – the head of a large gene-editing facility in Russia – has announced his plans to use CRISPR manipulation on human embryos. Despite immediate backlash over the plan, Rebrikov told Nature that he may just be “crazy enough to do it”. His aim is to bring the edited human embryos to term within the near future – possibly by the end of 2019.
This isn’t the first example of such a gene editing experiment. In 2018 Chinese biologist He Jiankui announced that he had worked on a similar project – which was met with backlash by both the scientific community and general public. Jiankui said that he had successfully created twin gene-edited baby girls – a world first.
While Rebrikov says his experimentation will be similar to that done by He Jiankui, his approach will be less risky and offer more advantages. Both scientist have targeted the CCR5 gene – which plays a part in allowing HIV to enter cells. Rebrikov’s approach involves disabling this gene – essentially making the baby immune to HIV – and then implanting the embryo into HIV positive mothers.
In both Rebrikov and He Jiankuis cases, the laws of their respective countries prohibit genetic modification of humans, although Russia has yet to specify whether this rule covers the gene editing of embryos. For this reason, Rebrikov has stated that in order to run the experiments without legal backlash he will first need the green light from three government agencies.
Despite Rebrikovs positive outlook on the project, several experts voiced negative opinions when interviewed by Nature. Molecular biologist and pioneer of CRISPR Cas9, Jennifer Doudna has made it clear that the technology involved in such gene editing experiments simply isn’t ready for safe use.
Using the CRISPR Cas9 editing tool can result in the mis-targeting of genes away from the actual target gene, and even when the target is on point, Doudna says that its likely other genes could be suppressed or edited during the process but would go unnoticed. Obviously this could have negative effects on the future health of the embryo, but according the Rebrikov a new technique which improves the outcome of gene targeting has been developed by himself, which he says will be published with results within the coming month.