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Gene editing: Gateway to Promised Land, or key to Pandora’s box?

Genetic engineering and gene manipulation concept. A hand is replacing part of a DNA molecule. 3D rendered illustration of DNA. Image via Shutterstock

Newly fertilized eggs before gene editing, left, and embryos after gene editing and a few rounds of cell division. Image courtesy of Shoukhrat Mitalipov

(RNS) — News that scientists for the first time successfully edited genes in human embryos created a stir this week.

In the experiment, outlined in a paper in the journal Nature published Wednesday (Aug. 2), scientists essentially snipped a mutant gene known to cause a heart condition that can lead to sudden death.

The work is controversial because it showed that scientists could manipulate life in its earliest stages and that those changes would then be inherited by future generations, if the embryo were allowed to grow into a baby. (The embryo in question was destroyed.)

It also raised the tantalizing promise that the baby would be disease-free and would not transmit the disease to his or her descendants.

The work, a collaboration by the Salk Institute, Oregon Health and Science University and Korea’s Institute for Basic Science, was performed using private money since the United States forbids the use of federal funds for embryo research.

But it raises a host of ethical questions with religious ramifications. Should these edited embryos be allowed to develop into babies? Could scientists edit out undesirable traits to create customizable “designer babies”? Could it increase inequality in society between those with access to such technology and those without?

Arthur Caplan. Photo by Mike Lovett

Arthur Caplan, the founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University, answered some of those questions. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

The gene editing findings are a breakthrough, do you agree?

It’s a breakthrough, but a baby step. It’s a demonstration of proof of principle, meaning you made a correction and didn’t kill the embryo, and as far as you know, it developed normally for a little bit. It still didn’t demonstrate that there weren’t some errors made in other parts of the embryo. That might appear later in development. But it’s certainly an exciting step.

People are now worried about the possibility of creating designer babies. Should they be?

I’m filled with amusement about that worry. The paper that was published was kind of like a demonstration that it’s possible to put a satellite in orbit. The designer baby question is sort of, ‘Can we travel to other galaxies?’ We aren’t very close. It’s not something anybody has to worry about right now. It’s certainly a consideration for our grandchildren, but not for us.

The questions today are: Who’d be watching this technique enough to decide how much safety and evidence there needs to be to try to make a baby using this technique? Who owns the technology and what will they charge people for it? Since most of the prior work on gene editing was funded by taxpayer money, it might be interesting to know if there’s going to be any effort to guarantee access at reasonable prices. The mapping of the human genome and everything that led up to this was publicly funded.

But this study was done with private money and that raises the possibility that further research can be done privately and maybe even abroad, right?

I will guarantee this technique will move forward. There are other governments in other countries that want to do it: China, Britain, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea. There are plenty of places around the world that would not see much to object to in continuing this work. What the United States does will not be the last word.

The idea that humanity would knowingly move back from the opportunity to prevent diseases from being passed on to future generations is ludicrous. The arguments about perfect babies, mutant humans or eugenics are not going to stop attempts to prevent disease or repair disease.

This genetic engineering concept shows a hand replacing part of a DNA molecule in this 3D rendered illustration. Image via Shutterstock

That’s worrying, isn’t it?

I still think you can try to regulate the technology. It would be nice if we had an international group; set out some rules. It would be great if the scientific community — with religious and ethics and legal leaders — would set up some rules of how to operate. It would be nice if journal editors would say, ‘We’re not publishing anything unless these rules are followed.’ That is important to do.

What are some of the concrete questions such an international group should address?

Where you get your embryos and gametes from; what kind of informed consent would you use to do research? How long can you develop an embryo in a dish? How far can you take it? How much animal work should be done before we attempt to make a baby? What diseases ought to be the top priority to study and work on and why? What are the competencies a team should have to do this? Should we create a registry, so that every experiment with embryos is filed and registered and we know all the outcomes, good and bad? Who pays if a child is born with grave disabilities? Those are the issues. Superbabies? That fear can wait awhile.

What practical steps can religious groups take?

First, get a scientist in to talk to you — someone who understands this and can tell you where we’re at in engineering embryos in humans and animals.

Second, what is the obligation to pay for this on the part of the government if it’s really oriented toward diseases and their prevention and treatment? Speak up for fair access.

Lastly, religious groups can demand that the scientific community form the kind of oversight body and rules I’m talking about.

It wouldn’t hurt to do one other thing: Try to understand historically — what was Nazi eugenics, what made it so evil? How did it come to pass? It wasn’t because of new technology; it was because of racism and bigotry. If you want to worry about abuse of today’s technology, it’s just as important to be careful about anti-disability views, racism, prejudice. That’s what leads people to misuse technology, not the technology itself.

 

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.

These stories are part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. (RNS logo, John Templeton Foundation logo}

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

31 Comments

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  • Eating too much of Sister Sandi’s homemade bread will lead to your JEANS needing edited that’s for sure. Lol.

  • This will doubtless be just the first step towards a brave new world, but it will not come without a steep price for humanity in some fashion that we cannot presently foresee. It has ever been thus.

  • Much dystopian fiction involves privileged people having access to such services while the underclass does not. The way to prevent this is to require access to such services to all.

  • More important to preserve equality and dignity by protecting procreation rights. People should feel they have a right to have natural children, the right to have our own children must be protected. Alternatives undermine the right, they deny it is really a right.

  • That’s the way I feel about farming. I mean, all it really does is privilege those people who own arable land over those people who do not. Who cares about potential benefits, AGRICULTURE JUST ISN’T FAIR!!

    We should just ban it!! End Farm Privilege Now!!

    Damnable rich folk and their arable land!! Why should the people who live along the Nile get to live in luxury while the people of inner Iceland starve!?

  • Amusing, in a sad sort of way.

    Our Western world is constantly barraged by advocates for non-GMO food, Organic food products, etc., with the constant siren song of how conventional food products from our supermarkets well ruin our environment, and/or poison us. The tone from these eco-fascists, of course, is that new ag technologies, that boost yields and reduce production costs, will kill us.

    Yet, when this sort of genetic technology advances, no such alarm. With this medical technology as a foundation, geneticists will likely develop the ability to edit out Downs or Williams syndrome..and/or other genetic mutations. And this “ethicist” refuses to sound any alarm whatsoever?

    I don’t see such technology as benefiting humanity. When somebody decides s/he can start fixing human imperfections at a genetic level, where does it end?

  • Science fiction has earned much credit for exploring the issue of genetic manipulation and exploitation. I give Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek kudos in this arena. In that tale of Khan in the original series, and Dr. Bashir in Deep Space Nine, Roddenberry clearly illustrates some of the pitfalls of humanity’s effort to improve itself at a genetic level.

    Humanity would be unwise not to heed such warnings.

  • I don’t buy your premise. Nothing is impossible. The assertion something is impossible is just an uninformed opinion. Moreover the logic’s ridiculous. “Banning” doesn’t work. Our experiments with Prohibition prove that. Besides, all that does is create a state spying apparatus ripe for abuse.

  • What’s all this “eugenics” stuff for again, Yonat Shimron? To be “really oriented toward diseases and their prevention and treatment?” In other words, “to prevent diseases from being passed on to future generations … or repair disease” – but, mind, “diseases … (of) the top priority” for starters? In other words, to have it all “snipped (the) mutant gene known to cause a heart condition that can lead to sudden death”, for instance?

    Oh, that’s right, I forgot that Christ Jesus has stopped miraculous healing for a long, long time now. We’re just trying to overcompensate here for such loss of tremendous service to humanity. Why did He quit His job anyway, thereby reneging on His calling from on high? Thankless job, was it, then? Poor Messiah of Israel just can’t take rejection en masse, I guess, as per the following confirmation:

    (1) “And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.” (Matthew 13:58)

    (2) “And He could do no miracle there except … on a few … And He wondered at their unbelief.” (Mark 6:5-6)

  • Because it isn’t at the “genetic level” that such “effort” is supposed to be targeted? Then where else?

  • But our genes are so messed up. What to do? Me? Human imperfections were already all over Adam & Eve – prior to the Fall. Intentional on Creator’s part so Israel need & keep the Law, so then they & all races need & keep the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Not only the Rich needs no Jesus; the Gene-Healthy doesn’t either.

    End of the day: we’ve got, like you said, “A brave new world”.

    Astounding: everything happening before our eyes because of Christ Jesus, one way or the other.

  • ah yes the old classic loggerheads

    hereditary vs environmental influences

    determinism vs free will

    individual vs societal

    mcdonald’s vs burger king

    bbbooorrriiinnnggg

    thinking outside the box is useless

    boxing off outside thinking even more

    oh jesus i’m so sorry about us boring people going nowhere since you’ve been gone

    wishing you were here

  • I’m not…nor a prophet. My comment simply reflects what my study of human history has revealed. Primarily that every advance in human technological capacity, while beneficial in many cases, always leads to some measure of economic pain and displacement for a substantial portion of the human population of the planet, albeit temporarily. The greater consequence lies in other types of impacts, including the degree of grace and compassion, or the lack thereof, that we extend to others in that respect. Further, some specific developments are plainly dangerous and potentially lethal on a grand scale, including both military and civil applications of nuclear energy. “Medical” activities, practiced by some nations, including Soviet Russia, Germany under Hitler, and yes, the United States, have demonstrated that humans, in a governmental capacity or otherwise, should not be trusted beyond a limited measure when new or experimental applications are devised.

  • Well, that’s a “should.” I don’t think people who don’t bring reusable bags to the store have any standing to judge others, but, it’s all moot in this case because it is happening and it cannot be stopped. Thus government intervention is the only way to control it. Prohibition won’t work. A medical committee should more than suffice. Have you read Robert A. Heinlein’s “I will Fear No Evil”? Long story short, a multibillionaire named Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is elderly and dying and the pan is to transfer his brain into a healthy body, generally one of someone killed in a head injury or somesuch. This is done, and Smith is not told the body he assumes is that of his secretary who was killed in a robbery. It was an interesting period in Heinlein’s writing in that he embraced gender and sexual fluidity (the secretary was female). It turns out the secretary’s consciousness remained with the body and the rest is mostly internal dialogues between them. Heinlein was at his best when he embraced technology and humanism – and he absolutely detested the Religious Reich even as he predicted their rise long before it happened.

  • In all fairness, Khan was the villain of the best Trek film and Doctor Bashir was a great comic relief character who wasn’t overused. 🙂

    For my money, Gattaca is a great parable on the perils of genetic engineered people.

    The revival of The Outer Limits in the 90’s had two episodes relating to the subject. I can’t remember the titles.

  • Romans 12:2
    … by the renewing of your mind, … you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

    1 Corinthians 2:16
    For who has known the mind of the Lord … ? But we have the mind of Christ.

    Join us.

  • I have not read that particular Heinlein work, though I have read other works by him. However, I gave up science fiction some 30 years ago, it bores me to death. My wife, also an evangelical, loves it. Go figure. But I’m a natural skeptic about humanity in any sort of collective activity outside of the Church. Time will tell whether my trust in Christ and His Church will triumph over Humanism, which I presume is your philosophy of choice, or vice’ versa. It will be interesting to observe for as long as I am able.

  • We can do that in the US, but plenty of other countries will clearly have no qualms about it. All you’d be doing by banning such treatment in the US is raising the bar as to who could get access. Refusing to let US doctors use these techniques would just mean the “underclass” in this scenario is made up of those children whose parents couldn’t go abroad to have the technique done.

    Of course, as the scientist mentioned above, we’re lightyears away from “designer babies”. The only real use for the foreseeable future would be editing out diseases caused by simple mutations.

  • I don’t see a dichotomy where you do. A good church acts on the values of humanism and vice versa.

    Skepticism about all systems is justified; Skepticism leading to an inability to act never is. I embrace the people and the church fully all the while being cognizant of the flaws of each.

  • Um, using scriptural citations like the hearing impaired use sign language is not an honest form of communication. Say what you mean, or else you show you will not argue in good faith.

  • Mind of Christ Jesus – you can have it and be psychic with it. Will of God – you can access it and be psychic with it.

    Try it.

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