Russ­ian sci­en­tist plans to one-up Jiankui He in cre­at­ing his own CRISPR ba­bies — Na­ture

If De­nis Re­brikov has his way, the world could be ex­pect­ing more CRISPR ba­bies soon.

De­nis Re­brikov Na­ture

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The Russ­ian sci­en­tist has told Na­ture he is con­sid­er­ing fol­low­ing Jiankui He’s ex­am­ple in knock­ing out the CCR5 gene in em­bryos and im­plant­i­ng them in­to women — ex­cept do­ing it in a bet­ter way. It marks the first de­c­la­ra­tion of in­ter­est in con­tin­u­ing the work when re­searchers around the world are call­ing for sus­pen­sion of hu­man germline edit­ing and stricter stan­dards, fol­low­ing a glob­al back­lash against He’s claims that he fa­cil­i­tat­ed the birth of twin girls who had been CRISPR-ed as em­bryos.

Re­brikov, who heads a genome-edit­ing lab­o­ra­to­ry at Rus­sia’s largest fer­til­i­ty clin­ic, plans to im­plant the gene edit­ed em­bryos in­to HIV-pos­i­tive moth­ers, Na­ture re­port­ed, sup­pos­ed­ly ren­der­ing the ex­per­i­ment more eth­i­cal­ly jus­ti­fi­able. Many sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing gene edit­ing pi­o­neers David Liu and Feng Zhang, had ques­tioned the med­ical ne­ces­si­ty of con­fer­ring HIV im­mu­ni­ty to ba­bies whose fa­ther has HIV but whose moth­er doesn’t.

And while CCR5-∆32 — the mu­ta­tion that He was try­ing to cre­ate in the em­bryos — ap­pears to block one gate­way for HIV to en­ter cells, a re­cent pa­per found it’s al­so as­so­ci­at­ed with high­er risk of pre­ma­ture death. That’s in ad­di­tion to pre­vi­ous find­ings that peo­ple with that mu­ta­tion are more sus­cep­ti­ble to the West Nile virus and more like­ly to suf­fer se­ri­ous com­pli­ca­tions from in­fluen­za.

Re­brikov em­pha­sizes that he’s lim­it­ing the gene edit­ing to a sub­set of HIV-pos­i­tive moth­ers who do not re­spond to stan­dard treat­ment, in­creas­ing the risk of trans­mit­ting the in­fec­tion to the child.

“This is a clin­i­cal sit­u­a­tion which calls for this type of ther­a­py,” he told Na­ture.

His peers may not agree.

When con­sult­ed by Na­ture, Jen­nifer Doud­na wide­ly cred­it­ed for pi­o­neer­ing the use of the CRISPR/Cas9 sys­tem in hu­mans — said “the da­ta I have seen say it’s not that easy to con­trol the way the DNA re­pair works.”

“The tech­nol­o­gy is not ready,” she said. “It is not sur­pris­ing, but it is very dis­ap­point­ing and un­set­tling.”

Like the rest of the world, Rus­sia is hash­ing out its rules on clin­i­cal use of edit­ing the genes of em­bryos — a process that Re­brikov ex­pects to be com­plete in nine months. He plans to seek ap­proval from three gov­ern­ment agen­cies and ex­pects to hear back as soon as one month or as late as two years.

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