Russia Could Take the Lead on Human Gene Editing

There’s broad consensus that genetically modifying humans isn’t a good idea, at least not anytime in the near future. But it seems Russia has less qualms about the idea, which could leave it to determine the future of the technology.

After Chinese geneticist He Jiankui announced he had used CRISPR to genetically edit two human embryos there was widespread outrage from both the scientific community and authorities at home and abroad. But it took less than a year for Russian scientist Denis Rebrikov to announce his desire to carry out similar experiments that edit germline DNA, which refers to changes that will be passed on to future generations.

Condemnation from the international community was again swift, but it appears Rebrikov may be finding a more receptive audience at home. Bloomberg reports that a secret meeting of top Russian geneticists and health officials was convened over the summer to discuss the proposals.

And the meeting had a significant guest: Maria Vorontsova, an endocrinologist and daughter of the man likely to make the final call on Russia’s position on gene-editing President Vladimir Putin.

Bloomberg reports there was a back and forth between opponents and proponents of the idea, but Vorontsova said scientific progress can’t be stopped and suggested such research should be controlled by state-run institutions to ensure oversight.

While that’s a long way from an official endorsement, the Russian government’s response to Rebrikov’s plans has certainly been tepid compared to those in the US, where politicians recently renewed a ban on germline editing, and in China, where He’s work quickly led to a tightening of regulations around human gene editing.

Rebrikov’s proposal potentially has more merit than He’s. Rebrikov initially planned to target the same gene as He, which is believed to determine susceptibility to HIV. Switching this gene off was criticized for being an unnecessarily complicated and dangerous way of ensuring the disease wasn’t passed from parent to child.

Now he plans to use CRISPR to switch off a rare gene that leads to deafness. He is working with couples who are both deaf due to the condition, but don’t want to pass it on to their children. There’s still very little understanding of what the potential side effects of this kind of intervention could be, which has led many to call for a moratorium on the technology.

Both the World Health Organization and an international commission set up by the US national academies and the UK’s Royal Society are trying to develop guidelines for human gene editing technology, but scientists leading these efforts admit there’s little they can do to prevent this kind of research at present.

And while Rebrikov’s proposals may sound fairly benign, the way he talks about the technology should give serious cause for concern. In the Bloomberg article he openly discusses “starting small” and the prospect of parents genetically enhancing their children, while seeming to invoke the Soviet Union’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as a justification for developing a technology that can be used for both good and evil.

So far, most of the discussion around germline editing has been focused on safety. But writing in Scientific American Mildred Solomon, president of bioethics institute The Hastings Center, says we need to start tackling questions that go beyond safety before it’s too late.

That will inevitably include discussions around the ethics of genetic enhancement, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that there also needs to be consideration of the geopolitical ramifications of the technology.

Putin has already voiced his concerns about genetically-engineered soldiers, and in today’s hostile international climate it’s easy to see the world’s great powers worrying about being left behind by their adversaries. Rebrikov alluded to this train of thought in his comments to Bloomberg, saying he’s sure embryo gene-editing is happening in clandestine “dark sites.”

Despite China’s forceful public response to He’s research, there’s evidence the government was actually funding it, and bioethicist James Giordano told National Defense that it’s highly unlikely the scientist was a rogue actor in a country where government, academia, and industry are so deeply entwined.

We’re still a long way from the kind of capabilities required for doomsday scenarios like super-soldiers or genetically-targeted biological weapons, but recent developments suggest there’s a real danger of a genetic arms race developing. Exactly what can be done to stop it remains far from clear, but there needs to be a major push to ensure the fundamental basis of our humanity doesn’t end up being governed by realpolitik.

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Edd Gent
Edd Gent
I am a freelance science and technology writer based in Bangalore, India. My main areas of interest are engineering, computing and biology, with a particular focus on the intersections between the three.
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