It was a couple of years back that researcher He Jiankui claimed he made three “CRISPR babies.”
No one would think about doing any kind of rogue gene-editing again, right? Not even somatic gene edits.
After all, as far as we know he’s in jail.
We still don’t know the health risks that these three kids might face from damage to their genomes too.
Yet some researchers knew about He Jiankui’s plans before the human embryos were CRISPR’d. They didn’t say anything to the wider community. More openness is crucial moving forward.
Claimed CRISPR enhancements to be sold at Ukrainian clinic?
If I had to pick one country that might be the epitome of the ‘Wild West’ of reproductive and genetic technologies including gene-editing it might be Ukraine. For example, there is “3-person IVF” or human mitochondrial transfer of some kind being sold there, but that technology has not yet been proven safe nor effective.
Now it seems a clinic in Ukraine is gearing up to do something more extreme: sell purported CRISPR trait enhancements to customers.
A reader of The Niche alerted me to an email that has been sent out to genetics researchers by the Ukrainian clinic trying to recruit scientists for this project. Here’s one such email (emphasis mine):
“Hello! Our Medical Center based on the Institute of Quantum Medicine is opening its own laboratory for genetic editing of stem cells. Our long-term goals include working with humans using edited stem cells. We plan to edit gray hair color, skin quality and breast size. We need a person who could lead this project and train geneticists from Ukraine to work with genetic editing of stem cells in humans. For our part, we will provide a high level of wages, a place of residence, all the necessary equipment, and we will pay for travel. I look forward to hearing from you! Thank you!”
Are such enhancements even possible? I suppose one could try. I won’t go into the details of how it could be attempted. Mistakes or unintended outcomes could be disastrous.
The job opening seemed to be at something called Medeus Clinic or Medeus Medical Center in Ukraine.
What is the Medeus Medical Center?
The Medeus Clinic or Medical Center offers holistic and “quantum medicine”, whatever that means. Perhaps it’s related to sketchy energy healing?
Here’s a link to the Medeus website with an automatic Google translate feature to English that hopefully will work for most people.
The only meaning I could find for the actual name Medeus on the web was a dragon in the Fire Emblem series. I hadn’t heard of it before.
I found a sci-fi-type “teaser” YouTube video for Medeus. See above. It seems they are selling one conception of youth and beauty.
The Medeus video reminds me a lot of promotional videos for Liveyon, a supplier of umbilical cord materials to unproven clinics here in the U.S. Maybe there’s a certain vibe such businesses want to give off.
Job posting on LinkedIn
I was able to confirm with my source that part of the email they got was apparently the same as a job posting I found on LinkedIn.
The job advertisement is for an opening (maybe now filled?) at Medeus Medical Center Kyiv City, Ukraine. The ad says this:
“Our medical center is based on the basis of the Institute of Quantum Medicine. We are currently implementing a project to create a CRISPR genetic editing laboratory. We are ready to provide all the necessary equipment and reagents for work. We plan to work with living cells, animal models and, subsequently, with humans. The legal side of the issue has been resolved.
We provide experience with the CRISPR system, and are ready to develop in this direction.
The experience of organizing a laboratory will be an advantage.
For our part, we guarantee a fixed salary of $ 1,500 and above, the work schedule is 5/2. Help with moving and settling.”
It doesn’t say as much about the human plans as the emails being sent out, but you get the picture.
The person posting the job is “Марианна Гончар” or Marianne Gonchar. She is listed on the Medeus website as a “Family Doctor”.
I emailed Dr. Gonchar on Tuesday morning with a few questions about their plans with CRISPR. I wrote about her reply here.
What does Medeus sell now?
Looking at the Medeus website you can see a menu of options for unproven stuff now.
I didn’t find CRISPR enhancements on there yet. But they do have an article about the purported wonders of CRISPR that ends:
“Medical Center “Medeus” offers to take advantage of the medicine of the future now and invites geneticists to cooperate.”
This is just a translation of Russian I think (which I speak a little of) or possibly Ukrainian, but that “cooperate” part is very striking.
I’d say that their current menu is concerning enough even without any CRISPR enhancements in the mix. The offerings seems very ‘out there’. For example, could you restore someone’s nervous system with quantum wave technology? Not that I know of.
Including Gonchar, there are five doctors on the site with a range of areas. It also says that someone named Alexander Palienko trained them. Watching a video on the Medeus site I saw a link to an Alexander Palienko website. It seems he’s a futurologist and life coach. How does he train the doctors? The video of him on the Medeus site literally shows a lot of hand waving.
See a screenshot below from his own site that is not exactly reassuring. Laws are not for everyone?
Risks & ethics of CRISPR trait enhancement attempts
If the Medeus clinic actually ends up selling gene-editing enhancements for people, the risks here are substantial.
One of the primary ones seems to me to be the injection of people with CRISPR’d stem cells that end up altered by accident to have cancer-like properties.
Even if they could do this safely and effectively, is it ethical to sell human genetic enhancements? It seems like an awful idea to me.
I asked my source for their reaction to all of this:
“I’ve received a lot of odd gene editing questions before, but none quite like this. These are not realistic applications for CRISPR technology. It’s worrisome to imagine shady clinics popping up and fooling customers into buying products that at best, won’t work, and at worst, could cause severe harm. I still have no idea whether anything can be done to stop this group from going in this direction, but I hope it will help to let people know about it. I am now acutely aware that we lack mechanisms for reporting ethically dubious uses of genome editing technology. Perhaps we can spur the field to have a deeper conversation about this issue.”
In the US, the FDA has said that even self-administered gene therapies such as with CRISPR are illegal. Even if CRISPR use in people for enhancement is technically legal in Ukraine, is it ethical?
There are a vast number of ethical issues here with what this clinic says they plan to do.
It’s easy to imagine how this could lead to human suffering and injustice.
I hope that more attention will be given to the risks of what is going on in this case. That’s the point of my doing this blog post.
I suppose it’s possible this clinic won’t move forward with this idea, but after the He Jiankui fiasco, we need to bring things like this quickly out in the open as we learn about them.
- LinkedIn job posting from Medeus.
- Global Gene-Editing Regulation Tracker entry on Ukraine, accessed April 26, 2021.
- The untold story of the ‘circle of trust’ behind the world’s first gene-edited babies, Science.
- FDA Advisory on DIY gene therapies, accessed April 26, 2021.