Gene editingEthical Red Flags Fly as Russian Biologist Pushes Boundaries of Gene Editing

Published 21 November 2019

As the number of scientists engaged in gene editing grows, the questions about the technology are becoming more urgent. “I worry about the evident hubris on the part of those who act as if it is reasonable for a small group of elite scientists to direct our human future. With human genome-editing technology we are on the cusp of taking over the human evolutionary story,” says one scientist.

Moscow biologist and DNA specialist Denis Rebrikov has spent much of the past year kicking a scientific and ethical hornet’s nest with increasing urgency.

In the summer, he announced his ambitions to genetically modify human embryos for pregnancy using a technique nicknamed CRISPR. Then, this month, he said he’d begun lab edits on human eggs with the ultimate aim of clipping out a mutation that can cause deafness.

Rebrikov has assured the world that he won’t go further — for instance, implanting gene-edited eggs for possible pregnancy – unless he has permission from Russian authorities.

And the Russian Health Ministry took the extraordinary step this month of declaring that it’s too soon to make gene-edited babies.

This all comes less than a year after Chinese scientist He Jiankui supercharged global debate over tinkering with the human genome by announcing the birth of twin genetically edited girls, nicknamed Lulu and Nana.

The stunning leap by He into what critics liken to eugenics drew condemnation around the world and banishment by Chinese officials.

Questions revolve around more than just technology and know-how.

RFE/RL Andy Heil talked to three prominent experts about the ethical implications of Rebrikov’s activities and the emerging challenge to humankind that is posed by technology that can forever change the human genetic code.

A Good Place to Start
The World Health Organization (WHO) and scientists from around the world responded to the birth of the Chinese twins with calls for restraint as experts scramble to establish red lines with new technologies that open the door to changing human DNA in the laboratory.

Francoise Baylis, research professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and author of the book Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing:
Two questions are front and center in discussions and debates on the ethics and governance of heritable human genome editing. The first question focuses on the “whether” of heritable human genome editing. The second question focuses on the “how” of heritable human genome editing. These questions need to be addressed in order because the “how” question need only be addressed if the “whether” question is answered in the affirmative.

“Whether” to proceed with heritable genome editing is not a simple question given the multicultural context in which the question is being asked. Different individuals, organizations, and countries have different goals and objectives.