Beginnings Reporting on science and intelligent design

Full steam ahead for gene editing?

Science | Russian scientist plans more babies with altered DNA
by Julie Borg
Posted 6/20/19, 03:19 pm

Seven months ago, Chinese scientist He Jiankui sparked global outcry when he announced he had produced the first gene-edited babies. Now, a Russian scientist wants to try his hand at it. Denis Rebrikov, head of a genome-editing laboratory at Russia’s largest fertility clinic in Moscow, announced in the June 10 issue of Nature that he plans to implant gene-edited babies into women’s wombs by the end of the year.

The international science community criticized He’s experiment, which he claimed protected the babies from contracting HIV from their HIV-positive father. Experts said the research was irresponsible and unnecessarily endangered the babies with little to no medical benefit.

Rebrikov plans to use the same method to edit the same gene, CCR5, that He did. Rebrikov wants to edit the genes of embryos whose mothers have HIV, which he said puts them at a greater risk of contracting the disease than those whose fathers have it.

Critics accused He of putting the babies at risk because editing embryonic genes can result in potentially harmful, unintended, and unpredictable mutations throughout their DNA, which can be passed to future generations. Rebrikov claims he is working on a technique to prevent “off-target” mutations.

Jennifer Doudna, the molecular biologist who developed the CRISPR gene-editing system He used, expressed doubt that current scientific knowledge could prevent unintended mutations. “The data I have seen say it’s not that easy to control the way the DNA repair works,” she said.

Subsequent research has found that people with naturally occurring mutations in CCR5 often suffer shortened life spans and a greater risk of dying from influenza.

Russian law prohibits genetic engineering in most circumstances, but it is unclear whether those rules apply to gene editing an embryo. Rebrikov expects the health ministry to clarify the laws within the next nine months but admitted he is tempted to proceed beforehand, confident he will gain approval. “Russia now, I think, is a good country to do this type of experiment,” Rebrikov told Science magazine. “It’s not very free in politics, but it’s very free in science.”

Konstantin Severinov, a molecular geneticist who recently helped design a Russian funding program for gene-editing research, said gaining approval in Russia could prove more difficult than Rebrikov anticipates because the Russian Orthodox Church opposes gene editing.

Many ethicists fear editing embryonic DNA will lead to experiments not to prevent or treat disease but to produce genetic enhancements like a higher IQ or greater athletic ability. Christian ethicists oppose gene editing of human embryos because it involves the destruction of other human embryos, and they warn of the societal ramifications of changing God’s design for humanity. When Science asked Rebrikov about that possibility, he said people who oppose genetic enhancement “want to have all these things in their children but only by divine providence, not by science. They are liars or stupid.”

Associated Press/Photo by Ian Terry/The Herald (file) Associated Press/Photo by Ian Terry/The Herald (file) Snohomish County Cold Case Detective Jim Scharf during an April 2018 news conference in Everett, Wash., about the case against William Earl Talbott II

Genealogy testing leads to murder trial

Hearings began last week in the first murder case built on family genealogy testing. Nearly 32 years ago, authorities found the battered body of 21-year-old Jay Cook under a bridge in Washington state. Two days later, in an adjacent county, they found the raped and murdered body of his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tanya Van Cuylenborg.

Last year, investigators took a DNA sample from Van Cuylenborg’s clothing and ordered an analysis from GEDmatch, a free, volunteer-run geneology website where people can upload genetic information from tests through organizations like 23andMe or Ancestry DNA. The analysis allowed them to identify relatives of the person who left the DNA behind, and police were able to use public records and relatives’ social media posts to narrow their search to William Earl Talbott II, Wired reported.

The investigators followed Talbott and obtained a DNA sample from a discarded cup he used. A crime lab confirmed that Talbott’s DNA matched that found on Van Cuylenborg, and he lived near where Cook’s body was found. Police arrested and charged Talbott with murder last year.

In 2018, family genealogy testing led investigators to a California man suspected of being the notorious Golden State killer, a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized Sacramento, Calif., residents from 1976 to 1986.

Since then, family genealogy testing has been used to identify suspects in at least 50 cases, including the arrest of an 82-year-old Wisconsin man in a double murder case from 1976. None besides Talbott’s has yet gone to trial.

Although family genealogy testing may provide a powerful tool in crime investigations, critics warn it could spell the end of genetic privacy. No federal or state laws exist to regulate such investigations and protect the privacy of the general public. Questions also remain about the accuracy of such testing. —J.B.

iStock/Halfpoint iStock/Halfpoint

Built-in baby protections

Scientists continue to discover myriad ways that God designed natural protections for human babies in the womb. This month, at least two new scientific studies have uncovered new defenses.

One study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that a pregnant woman’s peripersonal space—or the perception of items in the space around our bodies—expands during the last trimester of pregnancy and returns to normal after birth.

Peripersonal space mainly incorporates those objects within arm’s reach of us and acts as a sort of safety bubble. The brain cells that fire when something touches a part of our body also fire if an object within our safety bubble moves toward us. The closer the object comes, the faster the brain cells fire. The psychological expansion of this space during pregnancy protects the mother’s growing abdomen, and therefore her baby, from harm. “So as the mother’s bump grows, in effect the expanded peripersonal space is the brain’s way of ensuring danger is kept at arm’s length,” lead researcher Flavia Cardini said in a statement.

Another study, scheduled for publication in the June 27 issue of Cell, describes how a pregnant woman’s antibodies are transferred to her unborn child so that at birth, when the newborn’s immune system is most vulnerable, the baby possesses protection from certain disease-producing pathogens. The researchers discovered that the placenta selects specific antibodies in the mother to activate natural killer cells in the baby and delivers them to the unborn infant so that those cells are abundant and functional even in the first few days of life. —J.B.

iStock/TolikoffPhotography iStock/TolikoffPhotography

Alzheimer’s and gum disease

Researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway recently discovered that the bacterium that causes gingivitis, or gum disease, can move to the brain and excrete an enzyme that destroys nerve cells, potentially leading to memory loss and eventually Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, researchers found the enzyme in 96 percent of the 53 Alzheimer’s patients they examined.

The scientists have developed a drug that blocks these enzymes and may postpone the development of Alzheimer’s. They plan to test the drug later this year. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a World Journalism Institute graduate. She covers science and intelligent design for WORLD and is a clinical psychologist. Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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