As reported in RadioFreeEurope, Russian biologist Denis Rebrikov is currently challenging the norm of caution regarding gene-editing in the science world, with efforts to gain the go-ahead from Russia to use CRISPR to disable a gene, CCR5, in those who are HIV-positive.
CRISPR, a gene editing technology, has been at the front of popular scientific debates regarding its ethics over the past decades. There are questions of social ethics and how to handle a tool that can so powerfully alter life. While the World Health Organization (WHO) is in the process of setting standards for human-genome editing, as of now, no consensus exists. This means any movement in the field causes a flurry of familiar outcry about the implications of the technology.
Rebrikov has applauded Russia for providing him with the platform to move forward with the experiments, affirming the country is very free in the sciences. He believes their lower barriers of regulation enables them to pursue high level ideas and allows the decisions to be made locally, rather than by bodies like the WHO. In the current proposition, Rebnikov presents his work with CRISPR as not only protecting the fetus from HIV, but even enabling “a potential lifelong immunity to HIV.” In Russia, such a tool is being examined amidst what is considered an HIV epidemic, with rates of around one million infections a year. Rebrikov considers this a method to build resistance in the child-bearing population.
The controversy comes in a few forms, such as questions about whether the technology is advanced enough yet to safely avoid potentially dangerous consequences, as well as ethical concerns about tinkering with the natural order of nature. Critics worry the technology has not proved secure enough to be certain to avoid potential biological side effects such as securing that all cells in the blastocyst are error free and not presenting new genetic issues due to bacterial carrier agents when using foreign DNA. Any slight mistakes when editing DNA has massive consequences, some of which may go undetected until later in life or not at all. Others question the prospective consequences of using such a tool that could alter the fundamentals of humanity. Familiar questions are raised about what designing our lives could look like, from concerns about discrimination like eugenics or reinforcing class differences and inequality. Supporters see CRIPSR as a way to edit the building blocks of the human genome to protect the person. Efforts such as Rebrikov’s could potentially provide a healthier life for generations and enable the individuals to live a longer life.
For now, Rebrikov is not held to any standards by the international community and thus can continue moving forward with his plans. He now must search for a set of subjects with relevant mutations and gain the approval of three more Russian regulatory services.