Scientists have successfully edited the DNA of human embryos for the first time ever. But a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary bioethicist says the research in question was unethical for its destruction of embryos and raises moral questions about genetic engineering.
The research – published Aug. 2 in the journal Nature – used a gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 to correct in dozens of embryos a genetic mutation that causes a potentially fatal heart condition. The embryos were purposefully created with the mutation and destroyed following the experiment.
“Addressing life-threatening medical conditions, such as myocardial disease, is certainly a laudable goal,” said Charles Patrick, a Southwestern Seminary vice president who holds a Ph.D. in chemical and biochemical engineering. “However, the ends do not justify the means. Biblical truth takes precedence over scientific advances.
The experiments conducted “consisted of creating 131 human embryos strictly for the purposes of experimentation. The embryos were genetically altered, tested and then disposed of. This type of experimentation is morally wrong based on biblical truth,” Patrick, a former research scientist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, said in written comments.
He added, “God’s Word clearly and consistently upholds the sanctity of human life. Moreover, life begins at fertilization, the moment when a single sperm unites with an egg, forming a genetically distinct human being. At this moment a baby’s genes and sex are set, regardless of whether fertilization occurs in the fallopian tubes of a woman or in a test tube within a laboratory (in vitro fertilization).”
The research published in Nature was conducted in the U.S. by a team from Oregon Health and Science University along with a cohort of international colleagues.
In one portion of the team’s work, 42 of 58 embryos were successfully edited to remove the genetic mutation, apparently without producing other harmful mutations as occurred in previous DNA editing attempts, according to media reports.
Researchers said their DNA-editing technique might one day be used to correct genetic mutations that cause more than 10,000 medical conditions, including sickle cell anemia, some cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s and some forms of cancer.
Using the technique in conjunction with in vitro fertilization could produce a greater percentage of disease-free embryos and in turn decrease the number of discarded embryos, The New York Times reported.
“Potentially, we’re talking about thousands of genes and thousands of patients,” Paula Amato, a member of the research team, told National Public Radio (NPR).
Clinical trials of DNA alteration currently are illegal in the U.S., The Times reported. The U.S. also does not allow federal money to be used for any research that destroys embryos, according to a news release from Nature, though embryo experiments funded privately are permissible under federal law.
The research published in Nature was funded by Oregon Health and Science University.
Even some secular scientists regard the research as unethical, fearing it could lead to genetically modified babies. NPR quoted one scientist not involved in the research as calling it “extraordinarily disturbing.” Another suggested “an immediate global ban on creating cloned or [genetically modified] babies, before it is too late.”
Patrick, Southwestern’s vice president for strategic initiatives and communications, noted “a host of ethical questions that must be tackled” regarding genetic engineering, including:
- “Is it morally permissible to change the human germline, [which] lasts the life of the individual and is passed onto future generations?
- “Is it morally permissible to use the technology to design a baby with enhanced or preferred traits?
- “Who decides what is considered an improvement on the human genome?
- “As a matter of justice and equity, who would have access to germline engineered therapies?
- “Would germline engineering change the view on the value of human life?
- “Did God mean we have control over our DNA when He said man has dominion over creation?”
Other experiments using the CRISPR tool to edit embryos’ DNA are underway in Sweden and are scheduled to begin in Britain.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)