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Gene editing babies? A dangerous, pointless experiment

by and

Published: 11 December 2018 (GMT+10)
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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.

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