HealthZette

Gene Editing: The Dangers of Playing God

Science can help save lives — and destroy future generations

The most vulnerable among us are in danger when it comes to advances in scientific genetic modification.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority in England this month gave researcher Kathy Niakan — who is with London’s Francis Crick Institute — the approval to modify human embryos for research purposes. In the past, the technology has been used to genetically tweak plants and animals, but it is now aimed squarely at humanity.

“This issue is of significant interest to our organization,” John Colyandro, executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, told LifeZette. “We are finally at the frontier where it is within human power to play God.”

CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats, is the technology behind gene editing. It identifies certain genes, cuts them, and rewrites their DNA. It has been used successfully to create bigger dogs and has even created micro-pigs, which are popular as pets.

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The stated goal of gene editing is eliminating serious diseases like cystic fibrosis and cancer, as well as improving fertility rates and in vitro fertilization techniques and reducing miscarriages. Understanding what happens in the earliest stages of human development and having the ability to “snip away” problematic parts of DNA seems at first blush not just desirable, but, if science can accomplish it, necessary.

The technology is instead a Pandora’s box of ethical questions and real risks. Genetic alterations can be passed down to future generations, for example. The concept of designer babies is much closer to concrete reality with genetic editing as well.

“What is perhaps pushed aside in the pursuance of embryonic genetic editing is the exciting promise of adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood research; we can get to the same place scientifically, without the horrendous moral and ethical dilemmas that gene-editing presents,” said Colyandro.

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And what if mistakes are inadvertently made in the editing process? In mice, for example, researchers blocked a gene that caused cancer, but the mice ended up aging prematurely.

“If we go this route, editing the genes of embryos, think about the potential if a mistake were made for that person to then pass along damaged genes, which affects generations,” said Paul Knoepfler, assistant professor at University of California Davis. He is the author of “GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies.”

“Correcting one mutation might cause another,” he explained. “Then that person might even avoid having children, so it’s life-affecting down through a family line.”

Scientific advancement is often a complicated conversation.

“On the positive side, this is a powerful new tool to understand how genes work, and to understand disease,” said Knoepfler. “However, this needs to be balanced with a sober assessment of the risks. One risk is that we need to completely understand genomes before we try to change them.”

Gene editing is not permitted here in the U.S. — so far. Last spring after Chinese researchers reported their use of CRISPR to edit the genes of human embryos for the first time, the Obama administration said it opposed such research in this country. Congress forbade the government to fund similar experiments.

Another potential problem is advancing the idea of the “designer baby.” Will we know when to stop? How will we know?

“Most scientists focus on disease, and 99 percent are committed to using science responsibly,” said Knoepfler. “But some will not, and then the idea of eugenics comes into play as it has in the past in several countries, where leaders tried to build ‘better, more desirable people.’”

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Nathaniel Comfort, a medical historian at Johns Hopkins University, agreed. “Fears about eugenics, a brave new world … are concerns that are shared by people across the political spectrum,” he told Politico.

Carefully developed technology can fall into dangerous hands.

“I’m very, very concerned about this whole notion of there being rogue clinics doing these things,” geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge said at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington, D.C., as The Guardian reported. “It really scares me, it’s bad for the field.”

Last week James Clapper, director of national intelligence for the U.S., testified before the Senate that he considers gene editing one of the six potential weapons of mass destruction that are facing America.

Bio-ethicist Francoise Baylis, who attended the AAAS conference, said, “I think bioterrorism is a reality, and a risk factor that we need to take into consideration. It’s like any dual-use technology that can be used for good or evil.”

This may be banned in the U.S., but private funding may step up to fill the void.

“It (gene editing) has now swept the international biomedical community,” George Q. Daley, a Harvard Medical School professor and director of the stem cell transplantation program at Children’s Hospital Boston and Dana Farber Cancer Institute, said enthusiastically to pri.org.

“Virtually every laboratory is taking advantage of this,” said Daley. “It’s so powerful, so efficient and so easy to use that it’s finding all sorts of very exciting new applications. We do hope that this work gets done in the United States. It’ll have to be done with private funding, but it’s essential. It’s going to teach us a tremendous amount about the earliest days of human development.”

Last of all, perhaps overlooked in the intellectual debate is the human embryo that is “researched” to supposedly advance us all. “Scientists observe the development of the embryo in vitro, and then destroy it,” reported usnews.com of the approved gene editing in the U.K.

Innocent embryonic life that will never have the chance to develop now sits squarely under science’s slippery slope.

Said Colyandro, “What should be transparent and evident is that people with physical or mental disabilities, or self-perceived deficiencies, are each gifts from God, who carry with them blessings for all of us.”

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meet the author

LifeZette senior editor Deirdre Reilly can be reached at [email protected].