Ethicists: UK embryo editing experiment opens genetic Pandora's box

by Julie Borg
Posted 2/04/16, 11:25 am

In the last few years, science and technology have equipped researchers with the ability to create genetically modified humans. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should, critics say.

This week, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority in Britain approved a research application from London’s Francis Crick Institute to edit the genes of human embryos for research purposes, a controversial move that has reignited concerns about ethical implications.

Last year, Chinese scientists started an international uproar when they became the first to genetically modify human embryos. The experiment failed but became the springboard for discussions about the ethics of altering the human germline.

In the U.K., stem cell scientist Kathy Niakan will use the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, a relatively easy and affordable technique that has exploded in popularity among researchers since it was first developed less than four years ago.

The Crick Institute researchers will study the embryos’ development as they grow from single cells to about 250 cells. They hope the information they gain may be useful in providing better infertility treatments.

“Dr. Niakan’s proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates by looking at the very earliest stage of human development; one to seven days,” Paul Nurse, director of the institute, said in a statement.

The embryos will be donated by parents who no longer want to implant them using IVF. The researchers claim to avoid ethical problems because they will not allow the embryos to live past 14 days.

“I promise you she has no intention of the embryos ever being put back into a woman for development,” research group leader Robin Lovell-Badge told Time, referring to Niakan.

But pro-life advocates point out the embryos’ certain death is one of the main problems. No matter the potential benefits of such research, they do not justify destroying human life. 

“Embryos are living human beings. Gene-editing research, as proposed in the U.K., would ultimately kill every human embryo whom it edited,” James Sherley, biological engineer and adult stem cell researcher, said in a statement.

Others believe once people accept embryonic gene editing it will spiral out of control and lead to permanently altering the gene pool by creating “designer” babies modified to have all the traits their parents desire. 

“It is a lot harder to stop a train once it is speeding down the tracks,” Sherley said.

Altering the gene pool also could limit some of its diversity, and that could have negative consequences on the human ability to fight disease.

Lovell-Badge, a stem cell biologist at Crick Institute, admitted to Time that even he is uncomfortable about how CRISPR might be applied outside the U.K. According to Lovell-Badge, any IVF clinic already has the means to use CRISPR to edit the genes of the embryos they implant. Since IVF clinics aren’t regulated, they could start to employ CRISPR to customize babies at any time.

“That really scares me because you can imagine someone with a big ego, whether it’s a patient or a clinician, wanting to be the first to do this type of thing,” he said.

President Barack Obama lifted a ban on embryonic research in 2009, but federal law still prohibits the National Institutes of Health from funding the use of CRISPR for embryo research. Leading scientists have called for a moratorium on such studies. But research using private funding and private IVF clinics is unregulated.

The genome editing research at Crick Institute still needs to gain approval from a regional ethics committee before it can begin. The researchers plan to begin editing embryos within the next few months.

Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio. She reports on science and intelligent design for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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  • Minivan Man's picture
    Minivan Man
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 01:05 pm

    I would argue that both genetically modified babies and IVF are "playing God".  IVF creates a whole world of problems with the sanctity of life.  While couples may feel justified when a new baby is born, there are so many behind the scenes disasters that go unspoken; Millions of lives destroyed or forever frozen.  It seems to me that IVF represents an inability to accept something (temporary or permanent infertility) that God intends for you to handle.  God used the extended infertility of Hannah to bring her desire for a child to complete fruition.  The result: A mature, dedicated woman became willing to give Samuel back to God.   Imagine if they had had IVF back then.  Hannah wanted a child more than anyone.  I suspect she would have gone to almost any lengths to have a baby, and it would have been premature.  I feel that IVF represents a premature attempt to force God's hand.  God opens and closes the womb, and given the disasters of IVF clinic, I would urge believers to avoid that course entirely.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 01:05 pm

    I think the only way IVF could be consistent with God's law is for the couple to commit to implant and bring to term all the children conceived by this method. (Preferably by their natural mother, but making arrangements for another woman to carry them if this becomes impossible.) Of course, the procedure itself carries risks to the embryos, so it might not be the right choice even then. (I'm not sure exactly what concern "playing God" references. Is it related to one of these, or is it something separate?)

  • Minivan Man's picture
    Minivan Man
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 01:05 pm

    Couples who are infertile should carefully consider this issue, and how it relates to IVF.  Personally, I believe IVF is a misuse of technology, and unethical.  Millions of frozen embryos are stored away for who knows what purpose.  Most will never be implanted, but will be either forever frozen or destroyed.  For example, when you go to the IVF doctor and they fertilize 8 eggs, and implant 3, what will you do with the other 5 if the first 3 grow and yield triplets?  It happens, and its a real problem.  Can you simply donate those extra embryos to research?  Do you need to implant them all, in the womb of the wife, or a donor?  Can you simply ignore them and leave them frozen forever?  What if the doctors tell you prior to implantation that there are severe genetic abnormalities with all 8 embryos?  Would you attempt to implant any of them?  What if the woman dies, divorces, or is diagnosed with life threatening reproductive related cancer after fertilization, but prior to implanting?  Its not crazy, it happens.  Seems to me that the best way is God's way.  Natural sexual relations within marriage.  IVF is too close to playing God.