Russia wants to create GMO children: why is it necessary - ForumDaily
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In Russia they want to create GMO-children: why is this needed

Russian biologist Denis Rebrikov announced his intention to create genetically modified children, writes with the BBC.

Фото: Depositphotos

He wants to repeat the scandalous experiment of Chinese professor He Jiankui, who announced in November 2018 the birth of the first ever twins with edited DNA.

Unlike his Chinese counterpart, who conducted a genetic experiment secretly from the scientific community and on false documents, Rebrikov willingly talks about his plans to reporters and promises to get permission to conduct an experiment from the ethics commission of the Russian Ministry of Health.

In June 2019, Nature magazine wrote about Rebrikov’s plans. And the very next day an editorial was published there urging to stop the experiment of the Russian geneticist.

“The scientific community must intervene,” the authors of the article assured, and just below they emphasized: “Time is running out.”

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Over the past four months, Rebrikov has managed to radically change the purpose of the planned experiment, find and lose potential participants, and acquire irreconcilable opposition among colleagues from the Russian Medical Genetic Research Center - but has not yet submitted the promised application to the Ministry of Health.

But the Russian geneticist was the subject of an investigation by the Bloomberg agency, which came to the conclusion that the final decision on genetically modified children, most likely, will be made personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What does Rebrikov want to do?

43-year-old Denis Rebrikov is the vice-rector of the Russian National Research Medical University. Pirogov and head of the genome editing laboratory of the Scientific Center named after. Kulakova.

Initially, his team tried to solve the same problem that He Jiankui was working on - making a child invulnerable to HIV infection at the embryonic stage by removing part of the CCR5 gene, through which the virus attaches to cells.

The experiment was a success: Rebrikov and his colleagues published the results of their successful experience even before Professor He's sensational announcement about the birth of the twins Lulu and Nana. However, the experiments of the Russians did not reach the birth of a child.

Rebrikov himself insisted that he did not have such a goal - otherwise he would have been ahead of his Chinese colleague and the first genetically modified children resistant to HIV would have been born in Russia.

“My team will also give birth to such a child, we are just moving towards this slowly, repeatedly checking the safety of the technology,” says the scientist.

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In June, he repeated this promise twice - first to the journal Nature and then to Science. Rebrikov even said that he had already agreed to recruit HIV-infected women to participate in the experiment (without yet receiving permission from the ethics commission).

However, literally a few weeks later he suddenly announced that he had changed the purpose of the experiment. Now we are talking about the prevention of hereditary deafness caused by a mutation of the GJB2 gene. Having corrected this mutation in the embryo, a Russian scientist wants to help two deaf parents to have a normally hearing child.

The fact is that after the scandal with Professor He, the scientific community approved strict rules for editing human DNA. Making genetic changes to solve a medical problem is only permissible “in the absence of other acceptable alternatives.”

To prevent the transmission of HIV (and most hereditary diseases) to a child, you can do without genetic engineering - simply by selecting a healthy embryo. This was precisely one of the main points of criticism against the Chinese professor.

However, if the GJB2 gene is damaged in both parents, only genetic engineering can help them give birth to a hearing child. So it will be much more difficult to prevent Rebrikov from conducting such an experiment.

Фото: Depositphotos

Who and why wants to stop him?

Almost the entire scientific community is against the birth of genetically modified children, both for practical reasons (we cannot predict the long-term consequences of such an intervention) and for ethical reasons.

That is why He Jiankui conducted his experiment secretly. When it became known about him, his colleagues at the clinic and university immediately disowned the Chinese professor, He was suspended from work and placed under house arrest, and leading genetic scientists published an open letter strongly condemning his work.

Many scientific and medical organizations have called for an international moratorium on such clinical trials and the birth of children with edited DNA.

Denis Rebrikov, however, then said that he envied the courage of the Chinese professor and was “rather glad that a certain scientist took upon himself the first wave of the attack and is making a way for us.”

A few months later, when a Russian told leading scientific journals about his intention to continue experimenting in this field and to bring forth new genetically modified children, his plans were met with hostility.

“Rebrikov must listen to our concerns and his critics—and not take any further steps until all existing risks have been assessed,” an editorial in Nature warned the biologist.

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In response to the entire stream of criticism addressed to him and new calls for a moratorium on such experiments, the Russian scientist said that “progress cannot be stopped with words on paper.”

However, Rebrikov promised to first obtain the appropriate permission from the ethics commission of the Ministry of Health, expressing confidence that “Russia is a good country for such experiments: it is not too free in the political sense, but in the field of science it is very much so.”

Then, Russian colleagues joined in the fight against the rebellious biologist.

In mid-September, the director of the Medical Genetic Research Center, Sergei Kutsev, announced that he was preparing an appeal to the Ministry of Health and the Russian Academy of Sciences with a request to establish a moratorium on “immoral genetic experiments” with human embryos, which he equated to experiments on people.

As N+1 clarifies, so far neither Denis Rebrikov nor Sergei Kutsev have published any appeals, so “the race for the Ministry of Health is just beginning.” Initially, Rebrikov had a slight head start - he managed to find a family interested in participating in the experiment. However, later the woman decided to postpone the birth of the child indefinitely.

What does Putin have to do with it?

Bloomberg Agency tried to understand exactly who will ultimately decide on this important issue and how likely it is that the Rebrikov experiment will be given a green light. The results of the investigation were unexpected.

According to the agency, at the end of July, several eminent genetic scientists held a “secret meeting” in the south of Moscow, which was allegedly attended by Maria Vorontsova, the eldest daughter of President Putin.

“Guessing that only Putin could decide how to regulate in Russia a new technology that could change the [genetic] code of any living cell, geneticists wanted to present their conflicting opinions about Rebrikov’s intentions to the judgment of Maria Vorontsova, an endocrinologist whose views on bioethics are gaining more and more weight,” writes Bloomberg, citing three participants in the secret meeting.

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Vorontsova is a doctor by training; she graduated from the Faculty of Fundamental Medicine of Moscow State University with a degree in general medicine. But in this case, what is more important is that she is a co-owner (and is on the board of directors) of the Nomeco company, a high-tech medical complex that is participating in the implementation of the largest private investment project in Russian healthcare.

The closed-door meeting lasted three hours and left Rebrikov’s supporters feeling that Vorontsova was ready to support them.

She allegedly did not say “yes” or “no”, but agreed that it is impossible to stop scientific progress, and such a serious issue as editing human DNA cannot be left to private parties - this should be handled by state-owned enterprises under maximum control.

Bloomberg tried to get confirmation of this information, but the agency's requests to all possible authorities remained unanswered. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said DNA editing was "not a presidential issue." And only the head of the Russian Ministry of Health, Veronika Skvortsova, in response to the question whether Rebrikov would receive permission to conduct his experiment, promised that “this very complex issue will be dealt with by the ethics commission.”

One of the agency’s interlocutors, who attended the meeting with Vorontsova, expressed confidence: DNA editing technology opens up such broad potentials that Vladimir Putin will personally make the final decision on this issue.

After all, back in 2017, the Russian president said that the opportunity to “create a person with given characteristics” will appear in the near future, and “this could be worse than a nuclear bomb.”

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