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A brave new Russia

Geneticists in Moscow debate the ethics of modifying human embryos

Russian President Vladimir Putin at an educational center in Sochi, Russia Associated Press/Photo by Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool (file)

A brave new Russia

At a secret summit in Moscow this summer, some of Russia’s top geneticists and health officials met to debate whether the nation should produce human babies with modified DNA.

They presented their arguments to Russian endocrinologist Maria Vorontsova, who many believe will influence the Kremlin’s decision about gene-editing human embryos, Bloomberg reported. Rumors claim Vorontsova is President Vladimir Putin’s daughter, although the Kremlin has not publicly confirmed it.

Denis Rebrikov, a Russian biochemist at Moscow’s Pirogov Russian National Research Medical University, announced his plan this summer to use CRISPR gene-editing technology to experiment on embryos with HIV-positive parents. Rebrikov couldn’t find suitable parents, so now he wants to edit the DNA of an embryo from people who have genetic deafness, which he hopes to prevent their child from inheriting. Rebrikov intends to apply for approval with the Russian Health Ministry this month.

Proponents of embryonic gene editing argue it could prevent heritable genetic diseases. But most of the experts at the meeting opposed Rebrikov’s plan, noting this new area of research has potentially dangerous long-term consequences.

Besides the unknown risks to the child and future generations, researchers could use the technique to create designer babies or supersoldiers. If the Health Ministry approved Rebrikov’s proposal, it would likely encourage other scientists to conduct similar experiments before officials could develop a global framework to govern such research.

Two years ago, Putin told students at a youth festival that genetic engineering could one day produce a military machine “scarier than a nuclear bomb” by genetically engineering soldiers incapable of experiencing pain or fear, MIT Technology Review reported.

But Rebrikov told Bloomberg that possible misuse has never stopped technological development before. The issue “is completely analogous to developing an atomic bomb,” he said. “Can bad people use technology for bad purposes? Of course. But did ethical concerns stop the Soviet Union from doing so?”

So far, the Russian Orthodox Church has taken only a vague stand on the issue. In June, the Moscow Patriarchy published a preliminary position on its website stating that although gene editing has the potential to prevent inherited diseases, it should not occur if it threatens the viability of an embryo.

Rebrikov sees no religious prohibitions against his proposal: “What we do is God-pleasing. We heal, just like Jesus did.”

Vorontsova did not state her opinion at the end of the closed-door meeting, Bloomberg reported. She did say governments cannot stop scientific progress, but guidelines should confine human DNA editing experiments to state-run facilities with maximum oversight.

But does the rest of the world want the Russian government leading the way in this controversial research?

Last year, Putin allocated about $2 billion for genetic research and named Vorontsova to the 30-person panel overseeing the studies. He said the project will “determine the future of the whole world.”

China began more strictly regulating human embryo editing following the global backlash against Chinese scientist He Jiankui, who produced the world’s first known gene-edited babies. With China’s increased regulations and the United States recently extending its ban on human genome editing, Russia could become the driving force in this frightening new realm of scientific experimentation. Rebrikov compared the field to the arms and space races of the Cold War, only with more runners.

iStock/Bogdan Kurylo

Good news for carnivores

Red meat may not be bad for you after all. An international team of scientists recently announced that extensive research found little to no scientific support for health guidelines that recommend not eating red and processed meats.

The researchers analyzed data from millions of people in three studies and found only a weak association between meat consumption and heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. A fourth review involving 54,000 people in 12 experimental trials found no association between eating red or processed meats and those diseases, the researchers reported in the journal The Annals of Internal Medicine on Oct. 1.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates for plant-based diets, filed a petition against the journal with the Federal Trade Commission, calling the report inaccurate and a disservice to public health. “These misrepresentations are directly at odds with abundant scientific evidence demonstrating the potential ill health effects of red and processed meat and the benefits of reducing consumption of red and processed meat,” said Neal Barnard, the committee’s president.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published an editorial saying the recommendations could harm people: “From a public health point of view, it is irresponsible and unethical to issue dietary guidelines that are tantamount to promoting meat consumption, even if there is still some uncertainty about the strength of the evidence.” It also criticized the researchers for not considering the environmental effects of meat production or animal welfare.

Bradley Johnston, one of the researchers, defended the work: “This is not just another study on red and processed meat, but a series of high-quality systematic reviews resulting in recommendations we think are far more transparent, robust and reliable.”

An editorial by authors at the Indiana University School of Medicine acknowledged the controversial nature of the researchers’ recommendations but said the study “is based on the most comprehensive review of the evidence to date,” and the experts who want to dispute it “will be hard-pressed to find appropriate evidence with which to build an argument.”

The researchers claimed no conflicts of interest and received no outside funding. —J.B.

iStock/Bogdan Kurylo

The aesthetics of the human skull

New research shows the human skull perfectly conforms to the mysterious golden ratio, often called the divine proportion or phi. The design gives the human skull “an elegant harmonization of structure and function,” according to the researchers.

The golden ratio, approximately 1.618, has fascinated scientists, mathematicians, architectural designers, and artists for centuries because it appears abundantly in nature. The ratio occurs when the sum of two numbers divided by the larger number produces the same result as the larger number divided by the smaller number.

In the study, published in the September issue of The Journal of Craniofacial Surgery, Johns Hopkins University researchers compared 100 human skulls to 70 skulls from six animals. They found the more sophisticated the animal, the closer its skull came to conforming to phi. Only human skulls align perfectly with it.

Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci have recognized the ratio’s beauty for centuries. But scientists recently discovered its functional benefits. The arrangement of leaves along a branch and branches along a trunk often conform to the ratio, exposing each leaf to the maximum amount of water and sunlight. —J.B.

iStock/Bogdan Kurylo

An asteroid-detecting telescope

NASA announced plans last month to continue developing a telescope to help spot asteroids headed toward Earth. The telescope, called NeoCam, will work from space with a large, ground-based telescope scientists are building in Chile.

Existing ground-based telescopes failed until the last minute to detect an asteroid the size of a football field that passed just 40,000 miles from Earth in July.

NASA hopes to launch the infrared telescope by 2025 as part of the almost $600 million Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission. Congress requires NASA to detect at least 90 percent of all potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that measure at least 140 meters in diameter by the end of next year. But many experts point out that even smaller asteroids pose a serious threat, partially because they can cause tsunamis. NeoCam will study asteroids under the 140-meter benchmark, as well. —J.B.

Julie Borg

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

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