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Gene editing babies? A dangerous, pointless experiment

by and

Published: 11 December 2018 (GMT+10)

Experimenting on humans, especially at the earliest stages of life, raises all sorts of ethical problems. From IVF to human cloning, people have debated the morality of tampering with people, who might then suffer consequences from the experimentation throughout their lives. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a gene-editing technology that has made genetic manipulation easier and less expensive than ever before, holds both the promise of a cure for diseases that are currently fatal, and the threat of opening a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences.

He Jiankui, a Chinese physicist, has announced that twin girls were born with genes edited by CRISPR. This was an attempt to make them resistant to the HIV virus—their father, but not their mother, is HIV-positive. In doing so (if he has done so—these claims have yet to be independently verified), he has broken Chinese law and the international ethical consensus among geneticists, and has exposed these babies to other health dangers, all for something that ultimately makes no sense.

The experiment

A gene called CCR5 makes a protein which HIV (the causative agent of AIDS) uses to get into the cell. About 20% of people with European ancestry have a mutated version of the gene which does not make a properly working protein. Interestingly, people who have two copies of the mutated gene (about 1% of people with European ancestry) are less susceptible to HIV. Some geneticists think that pressure from viruses like smallpox caused this mutation to become so common in some European populations, but it is essentially absent in China. He Jiankui used CRISPR technology to target CCR5 in an attempt to duplicate the European mutation. He failed—it mutated the gene differently, and how that will affect the twins remains to be seen.1

It must be stated that up until this point in the experiment, the scientist didn’t do anything that unusual—gene editing experiments are taking place with human embryos already. One article notes that “using a genetically engineered embryo to establish a pregnancy would be illegal in much of Europe and prohibited in the United States. It is also prohibited in China under a 2003 ministerial guidance to IVF clinics.”2 But I could find no secular source that took issue with the embryo experimentation itself. This comment is fairly typical:

We said ‘don’t freak out,’ when scientists first used Crispr to edit DNA in non-viable human embryos. When they tried it in embryos that could theoretically produce babies, we said, ‘don’t panic.’ Many years and years of boring bench science remain before anyone could even think about putting it near a woman’s uterus.3

And one bioethics professor suggests:

We need a formal moratorium on the implantation of genetically modified embryos while we look deeper into what makes us human, and what effect human genome editing could have on the future of our species.4

Many scientists are angry that He Jiankui implanted the embryos and brought them to term. Christians should be doubly so. Why? Because our concern with this branch of science is fundamentally different. We should oppose any research which intentionally harms or kills human embryos, which are children even at this very early stage of development. As such, they are human beings created in the image of God. The scientific community is outraged at the birth of the girls—we should not only be outraged at this but also by the unknown number of embryos killed and discarded on the way to bringing the girls into the world.

Why it didn’t make sense

The twins who were born with the edited gene have a very low chance of contracting HIV—there is no known way that casual contact with their father could give them the virus, and whatever other risk there might be could have been managed in different ways.5

The broken CCR5 gene also comes with other risks. People with two copies of the broken gene are more susceptible to West Nile virus, Japanese encephalitis, and more likely to die from the flu.6 They are also more susceptible to Type 1 diabetes.7

There are already CCR5 gene experiments happening with HIV-positive adults—people who could actually benefit from it—and these experiments don’t involve the taking of human life.1 Much like with adult stem cell therapy vs. embryonic stem cell therapy, the most ethical approach is also the more effective approach.

Germ line modification

A serious ethical concern in genetic engineering is germ line modification—making changes to the genome that will be inherited by a patient’s descendants. In some cases, such modifications might make sense, for instance, to eliminate Huntington’s disease. But such modifications need to be made very carefully.

The fear is that such germ line modification may open the door to ‘Supermen’, and that it might extend past curing diseases to choosing genes for enhanced looks, intellect, or athletic performance.

The outrage of the scientific community

He Jiankui has faced nearly unanimous shock and outrage from the scientific community. He acted under a cloak of secrecy, and only a few people knew what he was truly doing in his experiments. One news article summarizes:

The CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna says she was “horrified,” NIH Director Francis Collins said the experiment was “profoundly disturbing,” and even Julian Savulescu, an ethicist who has described gene-editing research as “a moral necessity,” described He’s work as “monstrous.”1

Regardless of the consensus, what He Jiankui did was a bad idea. Yet, “scientists say there’s no certain way to stop someone intent on monkeying with DNA, no matter what laws or standards are in place. CRISPR is cheap and easy to use—which is why scientists began to worry almost as soon as the technology was invented that something like this would happen.”8

It remains to be seen if the twins actually exist—claims of cloned or genetically modified infants have turned out to be hoaxes before.

It is worth noting, the outrage over the experiment is only justified within a Christian worldview, which is the only one which can logically elevate human life over that of animals. In the evolutionary worldview of these scientists, human beings are just another animal—so why should they be more upset about experimentation on human embryos over rat embryos?

References and notes

  1. Yong, E., The CRISPR baby scandal gets worse by the day, The Atlantic, theatlantic.com, 3 December 2018. Return to text.
  2. Regalado, A., Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies, MIT Technology Review, technologyreview.com, 25 November 2018. Return to text.
  3. Molteni, M., Scientist who Crispr’d babies bucked his own ethics policy, Wired, wired.com., 27 November 2018. Return to text.
  4. Annas, G., POV: How did claims of CRISPR babies hijack an international gene-editing summit? BU Today, bu.edu, 4 December 2018. Return to text.
  5. Sax, P., As a strategy for HIV prevention, disabling the CCR5 gene In embryos implanted in HIV-negative mothers makes zero sense, NEJM Journal Watch, blogs.gwatch.org, 2 December 2018. Return to text.
  6. Yong, E., A reckless and needless use of gene editing on human embryos, The Atlantic, theatlantic.com, 26 November 2018. Return to text.
  7. CCR5 gene, Genetics Home Reference, ghr.nlm.nih.gov. Return to text.
  8. AP, ‘I was angry at his recklessness’: Could anyone have topped gene-edited babies experiment? news.com.au, 3 December 2018. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Evolution's Achilles' Heels
by Nine Ph.D. scientists
US $17.00
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Genetic Entropy
by Dr John Sanford
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Readers’ comments

Peter B.
Why did Dr. Jankui choose the CCR5 gene? HIV is well-treatable nowadays and in China it is not a imminent problem. The impression in the scientific community is that this was a low hanging fruit, which immediately leads to success because a lot of research on CCR5 had already been done. Or could there be another, more obscure reason that has not been picked up by the media? Are the Chinese afraid of a possible new outbreak of the pox virus and are they already taking measures for the future? Officially, the smallpox virus has been extinct by large-scale vaccination programmes since 1980, and people are no longer being vaccinated against it. However, there are still two countries that keep a stock of these malignant pathogens. It was allegedly for scientific purposes. Let these countries be China's great rivals in world hegemony: Russia and the USA. Perhaps the Chinese doctor also knows that by inserting the interleukin-4 gene in the smallpox virus a murderous biological weapon is created, more deadly than all other viruses, because interleukin-4 disables the immune system. In light of these data, it is no great wonder that a CCR5 knockout was born in China. Just take another look at the Book of Revelations....
Howard C.
Nothing is outside of the power and control of God ALMIGHTY, so anything that happens is essentially his to allow or disallow. Take up your arguments with him, and cut out the middle man. I am not being a smarteleck. I know that the scriptures state that God is all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere. That leaves no area for Satan to command. Everything has to come under the will of God, or it cannot happen at all.
Matthew T.
Tampering with God's Creation and nature........it's unbelievable. It shows the real horrors of the world. We shouldn't tamper with things that have been beyond our control for almost all of humanity's existence. The monsters that exist in this world don't look like the ones you may see on the television, but rather, they look like us. The difference is that these men don't care about what they call "Human liabilities" but would rather progress down a path that will lead to certain destruction. There is only one other time that is similar to what is happening now: the time of eugenics and Nazis. Heed this article, and be wary of what is coming.
Ademola A.
This is the sad destination that the Atheistic worldview is heading to. Where do we then draw the line? Without a biblical foundation, it is impossible to ethically determine what is right and what is wrong. However, when we have the bible, then the issue of what is right or wrong is settled. This wicked Chinese physicist has not only broken Chinese law, but he has also sinned in what he has done. However, his atheistic worldview is the reason why he could even contemplate what he has done. Sad really.
Jon .
(Assuming gene editing continues to become easier and eventually legal). Gene editing will really distinguish evolutionists and creationists. Creationist will only attempt editing to return to Adam's pristine genome, whereas evolutionist modify genes based on their own understanding. The former will still be young at age 100, the later will be old at the same age. The righteous choose their actions based on faith in God's word.
Lita Cosner
Currently, gene editing embryos requires killing many in the pursuit of a few usable embryos. This is unacceptable to anyone who values human life, even if the resulting usable embryos would be much healthier.
Anil G.
There's no mention of the consent of the parents, not that that would be sufficient to justify damaging the children. But assuming the parents were care-ful of the children what were they told in order to achieve their consent? Was there even an accurate statement of risk and benefit? Are the parents also culpable for this experimentation?
Lita Cosner
It's unclear. It seems the parents weren't informed sufficiently about the risks and negligible potential benefits for the children.
Dominic S.
I think it would be more accurate and less potentially confusing to refer to He Jiankui as a biophysicist rather than as a physicist.

Keep up the good work, and God bless!
Lita Cosner
I found him referred to in both ways in various news reports.
Dan M.
Tampering with something so misunderstood and complicated as the human, (or any other) genome is like a child playing in an electrical panel. given enough time something terrible is going to happen. For people who are terminally ill it may be a last effort to live, done with their consent to genetic treatment but a child in the womb can't give that consent. Tampering with fruit fly's is one thing, but with human beings made in Gods image is another all together. I'm not saying we shouldn't try to find genetic cures for those who suffer from disease. I'm saying we should handle genetic research with the same care you would handle nitro glycerin. It horrifies me to think of the disasters we could create!
Fred H.
I gather that both Jewish & Chinese cultures correctly begin life from conception. Helps us understand scripture when Archangel Gabriel said to Miriam (translated Mary) that she would bare the promised Messiah child that was the Creators solution to Adams sin. Our western culture takes life from the child breathing air which then legally (not morally) "allows" us to tinker with human beings lives before birth.
I'm a sinner saved by His grace, it's Creator Gods opinion that we best consider. Love to you. FredNZ
Terry D P.
Mutations (i.e. gene editing) in the genome, must occur at conception, because a changed genome is replicated in every cell division thereafter, i.e. it is impossible to introduce a mutation in every cell after cell division starts. Darwin's origin of species surmises that one species evolves into another (e.g. from simian into a human) through mutations in the existing genome of both the male and female of a species; evolution will fail if the genomes of the male and female do not match (as a damaged zipper will fail to close). For a simple single cell creature to evolve into a simian and then into a 3 trillion cell human requires the addition of some 3 billion new bits of DNA (I understand from articles on ‹creation.com›). There is no evidence that any mutation will intelligently increase the count of DNA in a genome, as would be required in morphing a worm into a simian. Therefore, Darwin's theory of evolution by random mutations is disproved by modern biology, which is unable to demonstrate any gene editing process (as this experiment shows) that can randomly create and insert new DNA into a genome correctly, to achieve a design purpose. This experiment of genome mutation required considerable intelligence (of a human created in God's image). Ergo, this experiment with human life disproves the atheist assumption that a mindless/unintelligent/non-existent god was needed to create all life forms on earth from a single cell, through billions of random mutations occurring at conception, over millions of years.
Robert Carter
1. Inheritable mutations do not need to occur at conception. They can occur at any time within any cell that is in line to become a sperm or an egg. Mutations can potentially happen every time a cell divides. You have on the order of 100 trillion cells in your body, and some cellular lineages (i.e., skin cells) have divided many times more than others.

2. Will evolution "fail" if the male and female genomes do not match? That depends on what you are talking about. This is a problem for the chromosome 2 fusion claim, but does not apply to most known differences. Large-scale inversions, duplications, etc. are certainly a problem. They cause all sorts of infertility problems among living people, but perfectly fertile couples have millions of genetic differences between the mother and father.

3. You have to be VERY careful with the "no new information" argument. See that link for a detailed discussion.

4. But in the end you are correct. This experiment demonstrates how much thought goes into even making a simple directed change. To believe that all changes are the result of unguided processes is tantamount to believing in a greater miracle than the belief that God created all life over a few short days.

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