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Editing 'bad' genes into extinction is problematic, says expert

A local bioethicist disagrees with a Russian scientists plans to edit a 'deafness gene' out of babies
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A local bioethicist disagrees with a Russian scientists plans to edit a 'deafness gene' out of babies.

Dr. Francoise Baylis, a Dalhousie University psychology professor, says a new technology, called CRISPR, allows geneticists to edit human embryos in a lab.

"It basically allows them to go into cells and change the DNA, which is our genetic code, inside that cell," explains Baylis. "To put it simply, it's a copy and paste."

The first successful use of the technology was on a pair of twins last November.

"In that case a Chinese scientist manipulated those embryos in order to provide them with resistance to HIV," Baylis tells NEWS 95.7's The Todd Veinotte Show.

Now, Denis Rebrikov, a Russian scientist, is working with five couples who are affected by deafness, but don't want to pass the genes along to their children.

"They believe that they've identified the gene that's responsible for this particular hereditary kind of deafness, and they want to go in and make a cut and change that gene," says Baylis.

With the CRISPR technology, the embryo is created -- that is, the sperm and egg meet -- outside the body in a petri dish.

"We can watch as it moves from one cell to two cells to four cells to eight cells, and eventually becomes the complex being that we are," says Baylis.

The embryo is then implanted in the mother's uterus via IVF, and she carries it to term.

"As the embryo grows, that change will be made at every single cell, including even the reproductive cells of that next, new being. Therefore that change will be passed on from generation to generation," Baylis explains.

But the Canadian scientist thinks Rebrikov's project may not necessarily go to plan. After all, the technology is still in its early days.

"This particular technology is extremely risky," she says. "People are still working on this in the lab."

And if the scientist makes an error, there's a chance they could edit the wrong gene, or even introduce a cancer.

Baylis is also the author of a new book, Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing.

From an ethical standpoint, the professor says that Rebrikov is going against the general consensus of the deaf and hearing impaired community.

"Members of the deaf community are very clear that they do not, as a collective, see themselves as people who are disabled," Baylis says. "They are just living their lives differently in the world, they have a rich life, they just have a different language."

Rebrikov has also said he's willing to work on genes for blindness, dwarfism, and more, which Baylis thinks is "irresponsible."

"He goes so far as to say, 'I'm ready to make enhancements.' It's kind of like this person who has this great new tool and he's wandering around looking for things he can apply it to," she says.

Baylis also worries about what this technology could mean for the future.

"We could anticipate a new kind of eugenics," she says. "Some people are able to take their privilege and entrench this in their DNA."

Although Baylis says the plight of parents who want a healthy child may tug at the heartstrings, there are plenty of options that don't involve genetic altering.

"They can have a hearing child if they want one, they would need to use donor sperm or donor eggs. We do that all the time in the context of infertility. They can pursue adoption," she explains. "There are alternative ways of becoming a parent."




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Victoria  Walton

About the Author: Victoria Walton

After graduating from journalism at King's, Victoria Walton now works in the film industry and as HalifaxToday.ca's weekend editor.
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