Russian Biologist Denis Rebrikov To Gene-Edit Deafness From Babies

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) strands from a double helix model on display at the Science Museum April 23, 2003 in London.
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Amidst the continued controversy over the ethics of using CRISPR gene editing on human embryos, Russian biologist Denis Rebrikov is planning to work with five congenitally deaf couples, all of whom have agreed to let him edit the defective and recessive GJB2 genes – known to be responsible for hearing loss – from their embryos.

For recessive genes to be expressed, Reason reports that children must have two — one copy from each parent. In the case of deaf parents, both the father and mother have two copies, which means the children created from their resulting embryo will be deaf. But Rebrikov plans to correct just one version of the recessive GJB2 gene in the embryo, which will enable the child to hear.

As of now, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui is the only person that has conducted gene editing of human embryos with CRISPR. Per The Inquisitr, Jiankui could face the death penalty and has received widespread criticism for his work. However, Reason reports that several fertility clinics have quietly approached Jiankui for his services.

Regardless, safety is the primary concern with CRISPR, as there is the potential for mutations and unintended harm to the gene-edited babies. Jiankui was criticized for using the uncertain technique to prevent HIV/AIDS, for which there are many effective treatments. Given that deafness is not a fatal disease, it wouldn’t be surprising if Rebrikov is criticized for using CRISPR to treat it.

As for Jiankui, Inverse reports that Robin Lovell-Badge spoke on behalf of the researcher during a BBC 4 Radio interview and touched on the potential for a death penalty punishment.

“Well, he read the newspapers that came out overnight, which suggested that he may face the death penalty, so he sent me an email overnight to say that he’s fine,” he said. “I think he’s obviously trying to build up his own case to defend his actions.”

Lovell-Badge admits that Jiankui has broken the law that prohibits implanting a genetically altered embryo into a woman, but he highlights the lack of penalty.

“But, there’s no penalty described in that law. He’s being investigated by Chinese authorities, so it’s the Chinese Ministry of Sciences and of Health and we have to wait and see what their conclusions are.”

Reason reports that while the safety of using CRISPR as Rebrikov and Jiankui have is concerning, performing the genetic editing at the one-cell stage allows reproductive clinicians to test cells at later stages of development to ensure the safety of the edit. With the right safety precautions, the publication suggests that — assuming parents are informed of the risks and agree to them — this kind of gene editing should be allowed.