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Biotechnology and health

Putin could decide for the world on CRISPR babies

September 30, 2019
vladimir putin
vladimir putinHuman Nature

The future of genetically modified babies may lie in the hands of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Bloomberg reported over the weekend.

Secret summit: According to Bloomberg, top Russian geneticists held a “secret meeting” this summer with government health officials in Moscow to debate a bid by a scientist there, Denis Rebrikov, to create babies genetically modified with the gene-editing technology CRISPR.

The first such children were born in China last year as part of a project to make HIV-resistant humans. That undertaking was halted amid pointed criticism of its ethical failings and a criminal investigation.

Putin’s choice: The question now is whether Russia will grab the CRISPR baton where China dropped it. Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russia’s leader, declined to give Bloomberg a position, saying gene editing is not “a presidential issue.”

However, Bloomberg reports that the Moscow gene-editing conclave was attended by pediatric endocrinologist Maria Vorontsova, who is Putin’s eldest daughter (although this has never publicly confirmed by the Kremlin).

Second-hand reports have Vorontsova saying she doesn’t think scientific progress can be slowed but that it should be controlled—for instance, by limiting production of CRISPR babies to “state” institutions. Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova told Bloomberg that “an ethics committee will deal with this very complicated issue.”

Forcing the issue: Exactly who should control the genetically modified future is in debate. Should it be scientists, IVF centers, or less-than-democratic governments like those of China and Russia?

The Russian scientist, Rebrikov, described as “a brash former wrestler,” says he’s trying to get some answers. Starting in June, Rebrikov started saying publicly he wants to gene-edit children so they are HIV resistant and work with deaf couples to correct inherited DNA errors so that their children can hear.

Now, Bloomberg reports, an institute where Rebikov works, Kulakov National Research Center for Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Perinatology, has plans to submit an application in October to health authorities that could instigate a review of CRISPR’s safety for this purpose, create a test of whether it’s socially acceptable in Russia, and, finally, determine if Putin will permit it.

“Everyone is just yammering,” Rebrikov told Bloomberg, which said it interviewed him at his lab. “I want the rules to be set, but nobody is doing this.”

Cheap car: Many scientists say editing embryos and turning them into people is too risky to proceed with. However, Rebikov says it’s not expensive to do and that costs can only fall.  “It currently costs about a million rubles ($15,500) to genetically change an embryo—more than a lot of cars—but prices will fall with greater use,” Rebrikov told Bloomberg. “I can see the billboard now: ‘You Choose: a Hyundai Solaris or a Super-Child?’”

Dire potential: Putin has already made some comments about gene editing, likening the technology to a nuclear bomb and citing the possibility of creating soldiers who feel no pain. According to Bloomberg, Putin last year directed $2 billion to be spent on genetic research that he said will “determine the future of the whole world.”

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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