The Moral Imperative to Research Editing Embryos: The Need to Modify Nature and Science

Chris Gyngell and Julian Savulescu, Practical Ethics, April 23, 2015

Human genetic modification has officially progressed from science fiction to science.  In a world first, scientists have used the gene editing technique CRISPR to modify human embryos. While the study itself marks an important milestone, the reason it is truly extraordinary is the scientific community’s reaction to it. In refusing to publish this study on ethical grounds, the world’s two leading science journals Nature and Science, appear to be demonstrating a lack of clear and consistent thinking on ethical issues.

The study, eventually published in the journal Protein & Cell, is more a small step than a great leap. CRISPR has been used to modify embryos is a number of other species including primates. It has also been used in human somatic cells–cells which are not passed from parent to child. However CRISPR has never been used in human embryos, and there are significant gaps in our knowledge about how the system would behave in an embryonic environment. CRISPR utilises a cell’s own DNA repair mechanism to modify strands of DNA, and it is unclear how the DNA repair mechanism in human embryos would interact with the CRISPR system.  The study by Huang and co-authors aimed to fill this gap in the literature by seeing how effectively and efficiently CRISPR could make changes to DNA in human embryos.

This research is significant and important. Gene editing techniques like CRISPR could one day provide therapeutic cures to genetic diseases, and indeed completely eradicate diseases like Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s disease, and cystic fibrosis from our populations.

Of course there are significant risks associated with this type of research. Most significantly CRISPR could make off-target modifications in embryonic DNA and hence cause widespread damage to the genome. This could cause significant defects and disabilities in any individuals born as the result of the research. Because of these risks, it would be highly unethical to bring embryos to term who had been experimented on with current gene editing methods. The risk posed would simply not be justified by any potential benefits.

However this study by Huang and co-authors was not conducted in any embryos that were ever going to be born, or indeed even had the potential to be born. They trialled the CRISPR system in tri-pronuclear embryos–embryos that have a whole extra set of chromosomes.  These embryos are not viable, and are normally spontaneously aborted early in pregnancy. These embryos were not created for this purpose, but were rather excess embryos created through IVF, and would otherwise have been destroyed. Trialling the CRISPR system in these embryos had no chance of resulting in a live birth. It is unclear how the study could harm or wrong anyone directly. Furthermore, this research is important precisely because it increases our understanding about some of the risks involved in targeting humans with current gene editing techniques. One of the stated aims of the research was to determine the frequency of off-target effects when CRISPR is used in human embryos.  This type of research is important for increasing our understanding of the types of challenges involved  in developing  clinically useful methods of gene editing.

It is remarkable that the authors of the study report that they were denied publication on ethical grounds by both Nature and Science. This follows both these journals publishing commentary pieces calling for this type of research to be subject to a moratorium, or strongly discouraged. As we argued in a previous blog piece, the reasons given for this stance do not stand up to scrutiny. The commentaries allude to concerns about slippery slopes to non-therapeutic modifications, and unpredictable effects on future generations. These concerns are vague, emotive, and devoid of any real rational force. Many technologies have unpredictable effects and could potentially be used non-therapeutically. This doesn’t justify censorship of potentially life-saving research. Further, the timing of these commentaries might have influenced other journals to not to publish the research.

There are sometimes good reasons for not publishing research on ethical grounds. For example, a few years ago two separate studies used different methods to create a modified version of the deadly h5n1 bird-flu virus. The resulting viruses had an expected mortality rate of 60%, and could spread as easily as the common flu. The case for potentially censoring this research was clear. The methods used in the study could be utilised by terrorists to develop bioweapons which could potentially kill millions of people. Many called for the censoring of this research on ethical grounds.  Nature published one of these studies and Science published the other , in revised forms in 2012.

The fact that Nature and Science deemed a study which changed DNA strands in a few non-viable embryos more of an ethical risk than studies which engineered a modified killer virus, should make us question the systems they have in place for assessing ethical risks.   Both Nature and Science need to clearly explain the reasoning behind their decision not to publish this research.

Far from being wrong, the research by Huang and colleagues is ethically imperative. Such research not only has the potential to provide permanent cures for genetic diseases, it also holds the potential to correct the genetic contribution to common diseases like diabetes. It even has the potential to give people the capacity to age better–some extremely people age well into 90s and 100s. Age-related disease alone kills around 30 million people per year.

Imagine that I am a scientist. I have a promising candidate treatment that could save the lives of 30 million people per year. I decide not to continue the research. I am responsible for the deaths of those 30 million people if my research would have led to a cure.

One is left with the suspicion that religious reasons are behind the “ethical” justifications for not accepting this research. And scientists must be terrified by a Christian fundamentalist backlash against their research if they are connected in anyway with research on human embryos.

More than 100,000 fetuses are aborted every in the UK for social reasons, not for reasons of health. Healthy embryos are discarded routinely throughout the UK and US–yet valid scientific research capable of improving the lives of much of humanity is resisted because it involves a handful of embryos with lethal underlying genetic abnormalities.

It is the Chinese scientists led  by Huang, not our leading scientific journals, who occupy the real ethical highground.

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  • David Ashton

    Improve the human species by eliminating crippling disease, &c. Perish the thought. Reductio ad Mengelum?

  • dd121

    Liberals are afraid that somebody will start turning out battalions of Storm Troopers. The truth is that diseases like cystic fibrosis might be eliminated.

  • TruthBeTold

    When they isolate the genius gene, blacks are going to demand it be inserted into their kids DNA.

    • Jason Lewis

      Best mud hut builders on the planet.

    • Oil Can Harry

      If you told blacks there were genius genes they’d ask “Am they be Levis or Wranglers?”

    • Sick of it

      They could (and would) use various genetic modifications to make a rather weak enemy into a dangerous one. Be careful what you wish for. After all, we’re targeted for extermination.

      • Hilis Hatki

        Genetic “target specific” bioweapons are here.

        • journey

          Bioweapons have always been around for centuries just getting more and more sophisticated along with the other means of killing.

    • Anglokraut

      Just castrate the Negro males, and give Negro women the sperm of a Dane or Swede. That’s what the women want, anyway–something better than their own males.

    • Light from the East

      They cannot afford that unless Obama makes it part of “Obamacare”.

  • Alexandra1973

    I say stop fooling around with nature.

    • carriewhite64

      Yes, I don’t have an ethical issue with it, but it is a losing proposition. Either it is a complete nightmarish failure or the unintended consequences down the road are destructive. Possibly I have read too much science fiction.

    • Realist

      Nature needs all the help it can get!

    • Hilis Hatki

      Mother Nature doesn’t care if you know Calculus, read Shakespeare, have a space program or just a grasshopper in a meadow. How are our crop pesticides doing? Living things change. Crossovers in genetic code alone is a “spark of creation.”

      • journey

        You are correct. Nature, govern by physical laws, is impartial which man at times do not want to accept.

        It has been coded into every living cell the strive toward perfection which man sees as the urge toward survival, from the simple to the complex.

  • WL

    It is immoral to play God with human lives. I am pleasantly surprised with the “scientists” for once.

    • Usually Much Calmer

      Is it not immoral to play God with floodplains?

      • Alexandra1973

        God gave us the earth, we’re to subdue it, make it produce, and be stewards. All that stuff.

  • journey

    The destiny of man is to explore the genome deeper and deeper. No man can stop it. Sometime in the future, the breeding of mankind will be pre-determined genetically. The end of random breeding is on the horizon.

    But, first thing first, is the mandatory birth control on 3rd world countries. This will be a global event as in the news today, Malaysia has absolutely refused to accept boats of “migrants” from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

    • Usually Much Calmer

      You may be right. Nearly all fruit trees are propagated by grafting nowadays. This does not seem to have much downside.

    • Hilis Hatki

      Reasons like this is why I got out of biochemistry studies. Every idea looks good in a test tube, not so much in the real world.

      • journey

        Every discovery on this planet by man was by trial and error, even the discovery, control, and usage of fire and flint by primitive man. If man did not try to move ever upward, we would still be living in trees/caves totally depended on Nature.

        • Hilis Hatki

          Exactly.
          We are still dependent on nature, we are just separated from it too much to realize it.
          We are on the 2nd floor of a house on fire in the first floor. Our solution… lets build a 3rd floor. Electricity gave us acess to unbelievable technology and time wise its just been a twinkle of the eye.

  • Daniel

    This is an issue where the left and the religious right are in agreement (mostly). You find this is the case also when it comes to racial science. Many Christian creationists make the case that Darwin was racist and his theory has racist implications (both of which are true).

    • Alexandra1973

      I’m a Christian creationist and I believe blacks were created differently. There was a split-off after Noah.

      • Daniel

        Ken Ham disagrees.

        • Sick of it

          The bones tell the truth. People are too blind to see what stares them in the face. Just because they have human blood now does not mean their ancestors all had human blood at all times. That is an assumption and one based on some sort of ‘we are the world, we’re all the same’ nonsense hippie mentality.

          • journey

            Actually, the DNA tells the truth. The differences in racial DNA is quite obvious in medical research. Because of the tremendous growth of the Hispanic population, the current medical research classifies them as a distinct race, which should be the case as they have their own distinct gene pool.

          • Sick of it

            Which is fascinating, considering that they are a mixture of various races. The pure races differ that much more.

        • Alexandra1973

          Doesn’t matter. Most Christians believe in heliocentricity; I’ve seen evidence to the contrary. I believe in geocentricity; Galileo was full of it.

          When you consider the earth was created the first day, and the sun, not until the fourth day….

    • Anglokraut

      The left desperately wants their egalitarian fantasy to be true, and the religious right desperately wants their fantasy of being lovingly crafted (and genocided, repeatedly) by a creator deity to be true. Neither can be swayed by physical evidence that their cherished beliefs are bunk. So why bother talking to them?

      • I’m sure you’re really in fear of someone on the religious right ruining your job, life, money, relationships or reputation because you say something they don’t like.

        • Anglokraut

          Oh, I don’t borrow problems that I don’t have, nor do I try to restore relationships with the religious. It’s just a waste of breath.

      • Sick of it

        Physical evidence like the complexity of DNA?

        • Anglokraut

          Hmm, I’m not sure which side of this topic you are taking with that statement. Are you saying the DNA is too complex to form without a “guiding hand” or are you saying that DNA is far too complex for the writers of the Bible to even fathom–given their limited knowledge of the universe?

  • how about this

    “Such research not only has the potential to provide permanent cures for genetic diseases, it also holds the potential to correct the genetic contribution to common diseases like diabetes.”

    Hey man, diabetes is just a life choice. Who are you to “correct” it? You even mentioned wanting to eradicate Tay-Sachs, which is common among Jews, so that’s anti-Semitic.

  • how about this

    Can someone explain why it is that many people are against eugenics? Is it just another example of guilt by association with the Nazis?

    • Anglokraut

      That’s a big part, no doubt. Also don’t forget about the work of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood; she was a proponent of eugenics, so anything she supported has been vilified by the anti-abortion crowd.

      • how about this

        Eugenics seems to me like the most compelling reason to support abortion. It amazes me how her support of eugenics is actually used as an argument *against* abortion. Prolifers sometimes even talk about the high abortion rate among ghetto Blacks as if it is a bad thing. Steven Levitt argued that abortion was largely responsible for the crime rate decreasing since 1992. How could anyone not want fewer violent, dysfunctional people?

        • Caesar Avgvstvs

          Agreed. I also can’t stand abortion for moral reasons but considering how much it’s done to keep the types that most commonly end up as troublemakers down, there suddenly is a reason why I could see myself supporting it. I’d rather there were less kids+higher quality than lower quality+higher quantity. The ends justify the means.

    • Usually Much Calmer

      I have two non-Nazi explanations, off the top of my head.

      The first is that scientists and technocrats, because they are so focused of their specialized area of expertise (and the human tendency to get carried away) tend not to have the judgement of a generalist, or ‘common sense’, and they can make really bad mistakes. Like Kudzu, for example, the vine that ate the South, which was imported from Japan as a clever means to control soil erosion. Or the reliance on one strain of potato to feed an entire island country. Non-specialists, lay people, have a good deal of experience watching overly focused experts oversimplify systems and make catastrophic messes. This looks like a movie they’ve seen before and it doesn’t end well.

      The second is that no one wants to have it made clear to them that they kinda sort of fit the profile of an untermensch a little bit more than they’d like.

      • dd121

        Also, eugenics is where leftist ideology and religious right ideology intersect thus creating more opposition than there should be.

        • Usually Much Calmer

          That may be true. I see horror at the idea coming from both sides.

      • Tully

        The scientists don’t listen, they had their try with the Nazis who took it to it’s logical conclusion – attempting to eradicate the underclasses across Europe.

        It wasn’t surprising they went that far, we had a almost a century of eugencists measuring and finding many whites wanting. Italians, Irish, Greeks, Spaniards, Slavs were put on the list for extinction by a bunch of WASP and German HBD’ers..

        If they got a chance this time around, you can bet they’d experiment on the poor of say Brazil to refine their technic to produce the new man. And if they do perchance get it right(which is very slight, though I expect them to produce many abominations that would make a Nazi cringe), the unimproved may find themselves on the modern equivalent of a death camp or a engineered plague.

        Be careful what you wish for.

        • Usually Much Calmer

          I was not slamming the vision or character of scientists in general.

    • journey

      This country was well on its way in the belief of eugenics – used to better mankind. But, the Nazis have given it a bad name by the concentration camps and the gross experimentation that occurred there. But, the rest of the world has conveniently forgotten, the Japanese were doing similar especially in China when they occupied it.

      • dd121

        The history of science tells us that ultimately, what can be done, will be done.

        • Usually Much Calmer

          And a good thing, too. We learn from the outcomes of all the ‘oops!’ -es.

    • dd121

      It was popular before the Nazis. Since then it’s been taboo. I think that’s starting to change, though.

      • John Smith

        The Nazis got their ideas from the US, among others.

    • Lexonaut

      “Can someone explain why it is that many people are against eugenics?”

      Yes. If genome improvements are necessary and desirable then what we have today must somehow be wrong. Since it’s politically impossible that anything is wrong today, the research must be suppressed.

    • carriewhite64

      I am not against eugenics in the sense of deliberately breeding the “right people” with a view of eventual improvement of the race. I am afraid of direct gene manipulation in human populations.

    • Alexandra1973

      For me, it’s not eugenics, but how you’re using it.

      If it’s to eliminate all races but your own, it’s wrong. If it’s used as an excuse to kill the handicapped, it’s wrong.

      • Александр Чурбанов

        Think about the eugenics in a positive way, like the prime minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore did. Being eugenicist he promoted marriages and higher child birth rate among top college graduates. Keeping in mind that intelligence is 0.82 heritable, this policy alone might well set the country on the path of prosperity. T4 program in Nazi Germany had little to do with eugenics, since these people killed were institutionalized for many years. Many of them were previously sterilized, therefore they could not breed to compromise third Reich standing. They were killed simply for the lack of resources to keep them alive.

    • Ultimate187

      Genetic modifications have already been made to plants and animals, but apparently modifying human genes is crossing some sort of line.

    • Sick of it

      Eugenics could be great as a part of something like a social compact or a part of one’s culture. Having the dysgenic rulers of the world telling us who can or cannot breed, on the other hand, would be a bloody nightmare.

      There were retarded/disfigured people in the Old South who NEVER married, but were also never sterilized or abused. This should make sense, but modern people are so abnormal, they hump everything that moves. They have no standards. One could say all ancient white cultures practiced eugenics and did not necessarily murder helpless infants as a part of that.

      Standards. Aesthetics. It really shouldn’t be that hard, but the lowest common denominator is in charge today.

  • Александр Чурбанов

    Significant progress could be made without relying on genome editing, by simply cloning the healthy embryos with a technique known as time-separated twinning. The technique description could be found by googling, top few links. In simple words, embryo could be microsirgically split into several artificial twins, one could be immediately implanted and the remaining cryoconserved. Once good health of the born monozygotic co-twin is established, the parenthood with the remaining co-twins could substantially lower the incidence of heritable disorders. This way 90% of new autism cases, for example, could be prevented. Time-separated twinning guided by IQ of grown up co-twins could result in better health and higher longevity, since both seems to positively correlate with higher IQ.

    • dd121

      A lot of opposition to these advances come because some people have the notion that this is Frankenstein in the making. In truth, the numbers who do this will be so low that the collective human genome of seven billion will hardly be materially affected.

      • Александр Чурбанов

        The opposition comes from the fact that the public opinion has been manipulated with the negative exposure of Dolly the sheep cloning experiment. A poll conducted a few years ago revealed that: 90% of Americans thought that cloning was bad; 67% felt that cloning animals was also a bad idea; 45% believe that humans would be cloned within a decade; 90% believed that human cloning is “against G-d’s will”; while 23% thought it was not. However, if poll question is put in a positive context, the results could be dramatically different. One example of such study has been reported in the following publication:
        Prainsack B, Hashiloni-Dolev Y, Kasher A, Prainsack J: Attitudes of social science students in Israel and Austria towards the Belated Twins scenario – an exploratory study. Public Understanding of Science 2010, 19(4):435–451.
        This article discusses results of a questionnaire distributed among 92 students in Israel and 65 students in Austria examining reactions towards the time-separated twinning scenario. The scenario entails the artificial twinning of an embryo, where one monozygotic co-twin is immediately carried to term while the other is cryoconserved and born later. The scenario resembles a case of human reproductive cloning in terms of result, i.e. the creation of genetically identical individuals in a time-delayed manner. Surprisingly to the authors of the study, about half of the students in both countries were in favor of legalizing belated twinning, while about a third respondents opposed it. Having different cultural background, students drew partly on different arguments to arrive at their conclusions. In both groups, uncertainty stemming from “novel” elements in the scenario was regularly interpreted as negatively exacerbating existing issues.

        • dd121

          In other words, most people are easily manipulated to oppose genetic research.

  • Tully

    And who here wants to volunteer their embryos so some scientist with a god complex can try his hand at rolling a superman?

    And don’t forget to ask wifey if she wants her potential kids to be experimented on.

    • John Smith

      These were never viable.

  • Light from the East

    As science and technology advance, it is inevitable for men to understand genetics and the origin of conscience more and more. When dealing with most of topics of genetics, liberals want to hide the truth for fear that their benefits will soon be compromised, but the trend is unstoppable. American Renaissance did an impressive work on race realism but lacks famous pundits to speak for its credibility. This is why several leftist groups and mainstream media labeled American Renaissance as “extreme group” even they cannot propose a proper evidence to refute us. For AR’s future development toward the general public and its influence on conservatives, I think a person specialized in genetics, eugenics, and anthropology should be included. People may differ in political stances and it is hard to change them but almost no people can oppose the concrete evidence of science (of course, some people will never accept that but they are not the kind we want). If Mr. Taylor is right from the beginning, science will finally give him a big credit. Truth can stand the test of time.

  • Hilis Hatki

    Intelligence has evolved into a mental defect.

  • Realist

    Gene manipulation will help eliminate disease and stupidity.

  • Lexonaut

    “Hitler also favored autobahns, that later resulted in construction of
    interstate system in the United states. Does the transient logic applies
    to high speed travel as a precursor of a greater evil?”

    Thank you for making me laugh. My point is that the entire subject of genetic improvement of the human genome is taboo west of … well … perhaps the Danube river, and especially in the USA and Canada.

    I don’t know what the official Russian position is on these things, you must tell us, but the Chinese take it for granted that improvements are not only possible but also essential to the future of their nation. In that sense they are the ultimate race realists.

  • journey

    Did you see the article posted on here about having baby sitting facilities 24/7, of course for black kids of all ages? They breed we take care of the consequences.

  • Ultimate187

    The Chinese regard their concept of yousheng or “good birth” as being different from eugenics, as the former emphasizes reducing birth defects rather than adding improvements to augment human potential. Nevertheless, gene modification can theoretically be adapted to suit both purposes. Western concerns largely revolve around the social, economic and geopolitical outcomes of successful eugenic reproductive technology, and unfortunately it’s making a barrier to pursuing what will ultimately be humankind’s most powerful tool for making a better world.