A few months ago, a scientist from China named He Jiankui was harshly criticized for modifying the DNA of two twins born in that country. Although many men of science described his action as monstrous and unconscious, now a Russian researcher plans to resume the path He Jiankui left.
This is Denis Rebrikov, a microbiologist who runs a genome editing laboratory at the Kulakov National Center for Medical Research in Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Perinatology in Moscow.
The controversial scientist made clear his ideas in a dialogue he had with the journal Nature. Rebrikov said he will work on the CCR5 gene, which was removed from the DNA of the twins that were part of He Jiankui’s experiment.
Why is this gene so important?
CCR5 is the center of the research because this gene encodes a protein that HIV uses to enter human blood cells. Other studies have revealed that people who have a mutation in the CCR5 gene are protected against that virus.
The scientist Jiankui altered the genes of seven embryos in an in vitro fertilization clinic (IVF), causing a mutation called Δ32, where carriers have two copies of the CCR5 gene instead of one.
The goal was to make the children that emerged from these embryos resistant to HIV, and this is how the Nana and Lulu twins were born from this experiment.
You may be wondering: if this seems so beneficial, what is the problem? Although the alteration of genes may have advantages, the consequences are not yet fully known, and these could be very serious. Among them, there could be unwanted and unknown mutations in people with modified DNA.
An article published by the journal Nature explains that people who have the Δ32 mutation are 20% less likely to live up to 76 years, compared to those who do not. Simply put, your life expectancy is lower.
Therefore, the experiment conducted by Jiankui was irresponsible, since it cannot guarantee that the twins present health problems later, related to the alteration of their genes.
Russian scientist Denis Rebrikov stated that he will not work with the Δ32 mutation, but will disable the presence of the CCR5 gene in human embryos, which will then be implanted in the uterus of women with HIV. He hopes that the experiment will work and that fetuses do not acquire HIV through women.
Rebrikov is already in search of women with HIV positive who agree to collaborate in the research. In addition, he maintains that his experiment is much more ethical and safe than that of the Chinese scientist.
However, there are some points to be resolved about this study. The Russian scientist has not made it clear what will happen to the implanted embryos, in a matter of who will remain in their custody, and what would happen to them if the experiment does not work and the fetuses acquire the HIV virus.
Rebrikov hopes to begin his investigation at the end of this 2019 because he wants to start it before the Russian government clarifies the laws on implanting embryos with edited genes, as these are still uncertain and if they are modified, their experiment could be truncated.
What do you think of this type of experiment? Are they unethical or are they necessary for the advancement of humanity?