Russian Biologist Seeks To Edit Genes Of Human Embryos With CRISPR : Shots - Health News A Moscow scientist claims he has a safe way of editing genes in human embryos — a method that could protect resulting babies from being infected with HIV. Approval of the experiment seems unlikely.
NPR logo

A Russian Biologist Wants To Create More Gene-Edited Babies

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/733782145/734665374" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Russian Biologist Wants To Create More Gene-Edited Babies

A Russian Biologist Wants To Create More Gene-Edited Babies

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/733782145/734665374" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news now. A Russian scientist says he wants to be the next person to create genetically modified babies. That's despite intense global opposition. The researcher gave his first broadcast interview to NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Ever since a Chinese scientist announced he had produced gene-edited babies, the world's scientific establishment has been united. It would be wrong to try that again - reckless, irresponsible, unethical. But Russian scientist Denis Rebrikov doesn't agree.

DENIS REBRIKOV: How it can be unethical if we will make the health baby instead of diseased?

STEIN: Rebrikov has a gene-editing lab at a big in vitro fertilization clinic in Moscow.

REBRIKOV: I don't know how it can be unethical if, for example, the baby will be - we can make him normal. Why it's unethical?

STEIN: I reached Rebrikov after he told the scientific journal Nature that he wants to protect babies from the AIDS virus, like the Chinese scientist tried to do. But Rebrikov claims he's figured out how to do it right this time; how to safely use the gene-editing technique called CRISPR to alter genes in human embryos.

REBRIKOV: He didn't show that this is absolutely safe. My experiments show that, yes, it's safe. We demonstrate that it's safe to use.

STEIN: But other scientists are highly skeptical.

FYODOR URNOV: Scientifically, this is, frankly, reckless.

STEIN: Fyodor Urnov is a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

URNOV: We don't really know how to do that safely. I'm scared, frankly.

STEIN: So NPR reached out to Sergey Kutsev, the chief geneticist and ethicist at the Russian Ministry of Health. He agrees and says the government would reject Rebrikov's experiment.

SERGEY KUTSEV: (Through interpreter) I'm confident that Denis Rebrikov doesn't have any chances to get approval from the Ministry of Health as of today. This is certainly unacceptable at present, and we all understand this very well.

STEIN: Some speculate Rebrikov's claims may be a publicity stunt to get government funding but say just the fact that any scientist would even suggest trying this again is deeply disturbing. For one thing, there are plenty of other ways to protect against HIV.

ALTA CHARO: It is entirely premature and unnecessary to do this at this time.

STEIN: Alta Charo is a bioethicist advising the World Health Organization about gene editing. She worries this could set back crucial scientific research. Someday, it could be deemed safe and ethical to use gene-edited embryos to prevent terrible genetic disorders.

CHARO: Rogue scientists like this - cowboys like this - they give the technology a bad reputation that leads to overreactions from legislatures and other governmental organizations and can lead to wholesale prohibitions that are either unwarranted or unwise.

STEIN: There have already been calls for a global moratorium on gene-edited babies. But some scientists argue there is always some risk with any new technology. George Church is a prominent geneticist at Harvard.

GEORGE CHURCH: This is getting some exceptional scrutiny, and I think that's a good thing. But I wouldn't rule things out a priori. Because we can't perfectly describe the risks and benefits, we should go cautiously forward and ask, is there a real showstopper here?

STEIN: But others think there is a real showstopper. Urnov, the University of California, Berkeley scientist says it could open the door to trying to create designer babies.

URNOV: The primary danger that I see is the slippery slope of irresponsible and dangerous human enhancement. I don't want to see a future 50 years from now where there is a generation of, quote, "enhanced babies," unquote, with side effects we could not have predicted because that generation of children will look back at us and will say to us, why did you not stop this?

STEIN: Nothing like that is possible today and may never be. But Rebrikov says he thinks it will be, and it would be a good idea.

REBRIKOV: I think it's the next step. It will be in the future. People would like to make those babies more smart, for example, more smart. For my child, I'd like smarter, maybe stronger and faster. Yes, I'd like.

STEIN: Rebrikov says he's already found two HIV-positive women who would like to have gene-edited babies and hopes to seek government approval within months.

Rob Stein, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.