The Big Question with Pavel Volchkov: Normalizing human genome editing

Pavel Volchkov heads the Genome Engineering Lab at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT). It has several projects involving genome editing mediated by the CRISPR/Cas technology. Discovered just a few years ago, CRISPR/Cas has emerged as one of the hottest scientific trends.

What is the biggest question facing your field?

“When?” is the question. I mean when will genome editing will become generally accepted and used to introduce modifications into the human embryo. Technically speaking, a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, has already done this with the twins. He edited the genome at the zygote stage and made the twins resistant to HIV. Of course, he was criticized for using an incomplete, experimental technology. There was no need to rush, and I’m sure, the biophysicist just wanted to be the first to do it. No matter what the cost, no matter what the sacrifice.

Frankly speaking, the technology is evolving and improving before our very eyes. It took people 10,000 years to make a vehicle after the invention of the wheel. In the case of genome editing, it’s not a vehicle yet, but it’s no longer a wheel either. To implement this technology, we will have to tread a fine line between a clinical necessity and our ethical responsibility.

So this question is a matter of science, technology, and ethics at the same time. No doubt it will come. No doubt it will be used. There is endless room for speculation as to how it could affect the human civilization. The sky’s the limit!

Why is it significant?

First of all, let me give you some insight into what the genome is and why it is important. You can think of the genome as this massive system software, like Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. It is a collection of data — instructions that tell you and your body how to work. There are different apps in it. Some of them work in the background, others network with an external server. That’s our genome. It’s in charge of everything. It’s responsible for organ and tissue development, even for some psychological matters. Remember the movie “Gattaca”? You can design an engineer, an athlete, a supermodel. You name it! Genome editing works exactly the same way. Of course, it’s not fully operational yet. But some adjustments are already possible.

Let’s go back to the Chinese experiment. It purportedly made the first gene-edited people resistant to HIV. This virus is a serious problem; the dynamics are terrible. Every year more and more people contract HIV. The current measures for preventing infection and combating the disease are clearly not effective. Let me get this straight, I’m not in favor of genome editing, nor am I against it. I’m just answering the question and trying to provide a clear example that illustrates the importance of resolving this scientific, technological, and ethical issue.

Where is the answer likely to come from?

From the past. Strange as it may seem, most of the answers to our questions are buried within us, in our nature. And though it is generally conservative, still humans are seekers and explorers! We like to think we follow a well-known path, but once in a while we have to choose a new road.

A light bulb is a pretty normal thing today, isn’t it? However, it hasn’t always been that way. We just got used to it. Back when it was invented, people got scared, they didn’t understand the necessity of this strange thing. Nature has conditioned us against change.

Genome editing isn’t a normal thing yet. Nobody says that it’s a blessing. At the same time, the history of technological development tells us that we tend to enlist such technologies, because the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Once again, I don’t advocate genome editing. All I’m saying is, it’s just a new road. The question is, when will we be using it? To what extent? Certainly, what we’re talking about sounds like science fiction. But think of the people who lived 100 years ago. How would they feel, if someone had told them about our technologies and lifestyles? Pure science fiction!

For more information about the Genome Engineering Lab at MIPT visit their lab page.

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IMAGE SOURCE: MIPT; Creative Commons

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