Human embryo

Russian Researcher Plans To Gene-Edit Embryos To Cure Deafness

Is that kind of gene-editing unethical?

|

Five congenitally deaf couples have agreed to allow their embryos to be edited by Russian biologist Denis Rebrikov, who will use CRISPR to correct the defective GJB2 genes that are responsible for their hearing loss. Since both would-be parents harbor two copies of the gene, their children would necessarily also be deaf.

So far as is known, CRISPR gene-editing of human embryos has only been done by Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui. He announced the birth in November of two girls whose genomes he had edited using CRISPR with the goal of making them immune to the HIV/AIDS virus. He was widely denounced for conducting an unethical and risky treatment. Some of the condemnations were justified: The technique's safety is unknown and the babies' parents likely were not provided with enough information to give truly informed consent. Despite being reproached for ethical lapses, He has reportedly been approached quietly by several fertility clinics that are interested in offering gene-editing services to their clients.

Since the hearing loss versions of the GJB2 gene are recessive, Rebrikov aims to use CRISPR to correct one version of the GJB2 genes, thus enabling the gene-edited child to hear. Earlier this month, researchers at Harvard using CRISPR successfully edited a mouse gene associated with hearing loss.

One of the chief safety concerns with CRISPR is the possibility of off-target mutations that could result in unintended harms to gene-edited babies. In other words, there is the risk of editing a gene you don't intend to, producing results you also don't intend. However, performing the edit at the one-cell stage enables reproductive clinicians to excise and test cells taken at a later stage of embryonic development to make sure the edit has been properly made and that no dangerous off-target mutations have occurred.

Many of He's critics point out that there are now effective ways to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS—including a possible vaccine—without resorting to gene-editing. Similarly, it is possible to correct hearing loss through the use of a cochlear implant device. It is worth noting that, in the United States, the cochlear implant devices and associated treatments can cost up to $100,000. Although gene-editing would obviously involve additional costs, the price of one cycle of IVF treatments is around $8,000 in Russia and about $12,000 in the U.S.

Hearing loss is not a fatal disease and obviously many deaf folks live happy and fulfilling lives. So should Rebrikov be allowed to proceed with his gene-editing plans? Assuming adequate safety precautions are in place and that parents clearly understand the risks and benefits from the proposed treatments, the answer is yes.

Advertisement

NEXT: Doctor Liable to Patient's Sex Partner ...

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Russian Researcher Plans To Gene-Edit Embryos to match some of the newly gathered facial recognition data they just got.

    1. I think we are pretty far still from figuring out which genes drive facial symmetry. It may be as much congenital as genetic. Nevertheless, designer good-looking babies are coming.

  2. Sure, if you think the scientific community declaring war on Deaf culture is ethical.

  3. performing the edit at the one-cell stage enables reproductive clinicians to excise and test cells taken at a later stage of embryonic development to make sure the edit has been properly made and that no dangerous off-target mutations have occurred.

    Don’t let the anti-abortion crowd hear about this.

    1. Redrum! Redrum!

  4. One objection you will hear to preventions of deafness is that they will be the death of deaf culture.

    1. But they won’t hear it.

      1. In deafness, as in space, NO ONE can hear you scream!

        (Your “primal scream therapy” is doing you no good).

  5. This is great news if it is true.
    Hopefully these scientists would be able to gene-edit cancer, diabetes, blindness, all birth defects, etc.
    Who knows?
    They might even be able to gene-edit out the stupid gene in people.

    1. Yes, I agree! AKA, gene-editing for intelligence… When intelligence genes are more fully understood, that is. THEN we can safely edit out the stupid!

      However, editing out the evil? THAT is a totally different animal! To edit out the evil, we’d have to edit out free will… Having free will means we have the option to do and be evil, that’s just the way of this world… I can’t see any other option. Having the option to do and be evil is “the” (or at least “a”) price of free will.

      1. There are angry hordes of protesters with pitchforks and Tiki torches gathering at both your door and my door, right now, protesting the impending death of “stupid culture”!!! BEWARE!!!!

    2. But how would comments be written here on reason if the stupid gene is gone?

      1. Good point.
        OBL would never be able to comment, and we wouldn’t be able to laugh at her.

      2. Half of them would be below average.

      3. True. There would be no comments for non-existent articles.

  6. He should do it, but mainly because it will piss of the deaf community to no end to bring around another cure to their disability.

    1. Oh, “piss of” with your comment!

      . . . – The Grammar / Spelling NAZI

    1. I CAN’T CHEER YOU!

  7. It is sad that adoption isn’t more popular.

    It doesn’t take many generations for your dna to be hopelessly diluted, so why obsess overly biological children. It is your culture and values that are more likely to last.

  8. Shit’s gonna hit the fan when they finally find that their gay gene.

  9. Babies will be CRISPRed and cloned and screened up the yin yang.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.