Beginnings Reporting on science and intelligent design

An ethics question for all of us

Science | Americans weigh in on gene-edited babies, but will scientists listen?
by Kiley Crossland
Posted 1/03/19, 02:46 pm

Americans are comfortable with using gene-editing technology to make babies healthier, but not smarter, a recent poll found. The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted the study in mid-December, weeks after the controversial announcement by a Chinese researcher that he had used CRISPR gene-editing technology—a biological cut-and-paste for DNA—on the embryos of twin baby girls born in November. He did so despite the very real risks: Gene editing can produce unintended harmful effects, which all future generations could inherit. The scientific community decried the experiment as unethical and reckless, and the researcher, He Jiankui, is under investigation by Chinese ethical and regulatory bodies.

But Americans are on the fence about gene editing, according to the AP-NORC poll of more than 1,000 adults. About 7 in 10 Americans favor one day using the technology to prevent incurable or fatal diseases a child would otherwise inherit, like cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease, and about two-thirds favor using it to prevent nonfatal conditions like blindness. But 7 in 10 Americans oppose using gene editing to alter a person’s capabilities, like intelligence and athleticism, or features, like eye color and height.

Ethicists contend it’s not such a simple divide.

“It’s one thing to look at the extremes of fatal diseases versus cosmetic things, but in the middle are going to be these very different issues,” said Columbia University bioethicist Robert Klitzman, who pointed to questions such as whether it would be ethical to edit genes related to depression, autism, or obesity.

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, a biomedical historian at Arizona State University who spoke at a Christian bioethics conference on genetics in 2017, wrote in a Wednesday editorial in the journal Nature that the scientific community is skipping an important step with questions about which genes to edit. Scientific leaders, he said, “have shunted aside a crucial and as-yet-unanswered question: whether it is (or can ever be) acceptable to genetically engineer children by introducing changes that they will pass on to their own offspring. That question belongs not to science, but to all of humanity.”

Humanity doesn’t have much confidence in today’s scientists to do no harm with gene editing, the AP-NORC poll found. Eighty-five percent of people said the risk of accidentally altering the wrong DNA location is at least somewhat likely, and 9 in 10 said they think the technology would be used for unethical reasons. More Americans oppose than favor government funding for testing gene editing on human embryos, but most people also said it is somewhat likely the process could wipe out certain inherited diseases and lead to medical advances.

For now, the Chinese government has halted He’s research, but with no global authority policing the field, it’s unclear how individual countries will decide what is and isn’t ethical when it comes to gene-editing technology.

Liebniz Institute for New Materials Liebniz Institute for New Materials Lead scientist Jiaxi Cui holds a worm-shaped sample of a new material.

Observe the earthworm

If God used the same design for human skin that He did for earthworms, parents would not need to remind their children to stay out of the mud. Earthworms can glide through thick, sticky soil and emerge perfectly clean. Scientists at the Leibniz Institute for New Materials in Germany created a material that mimics the lowly worm’s self-cleaning ability. Their study appears in the journal Advanced Materials.

Earthworms stay clean even when squiggling through moist dirt because they continuously produce a dirt-repelling lubricant on the surface of their skin, which they replenish as needed. Inspired by this feat, the German scientists developed a material made of soft plastic and embedded drops of silicone oil inside it. When the material is pressed, the droplets change shape and move to the surface, where the oil spreads evenly, providing a lubricating layer that reduces friction and repels water and dirt. The lubricated surface also allows the material to glide on solid objects and prevents the growth of microbes. As pressure on the surface is removed, the droplets reform again. The lubricating layer will continue to regenerate whenever pressure increases. “So it reacts dynamically to pressure—like a ‘breathing system,’” Jiaxi Cui, the lead researcher, said in a statement.

The friction-reducing and antimicrobial properties of the new material enable it to sustain more wear, stay clean longer, and reduce the chance of microorganism growth more effectively than other materials. The researchers envision many potential applications in both industry and medicine or anywhere a device needs to glide smoothly through something solid. —Julie Borg

Facebook/Roxli’s Rox Star Benefit Facebook/Roxli’s Rox Star Benefit Roxli Doss

Miraculous healing

The parents of a 11-year-old girl in Texas say God answered their prayers by healing their daughter of an inoperable, incurable brain tumor.

Doctors in June diagnosed Roxli Doss with a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma tumor. “It’s very rare, but when we see it, it is a devastating disease,” Virginia Harrod, a doctor at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, told KVUE-TV. “You have decreased ability to swallow, sometimes vision loss, decreased ability to talk, eventually difficulty with breathing.”

Doctors at Texas Children’s Hospital and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore all agreed with the diagnosis.

Doss started radiation treatments in late June, according to her CaringBridge site. Doctors told the family the treatments could limit the growth of the tumor, but would certainly not cure her. However, at an appointment in September, doctors told the Doss family the tumor was gone.

“When I first saw Roxli’s MRI scan, it was actually unbelievable,” said Harrod. “The tumor is undetectable on the MRI scan, which is really unusual.”

Her family says the result is a miracle.

“Everyday we still say it,” said the girl’s mother, Gena Doss. “It’s kind of our family thing that God healed Roxli.”

The child is continuing treatments to guard against relapse. —K.C.

Science confirms the joy of giving

Two recent studies by psychologists found the joy of giving has more longevity than the joy of getting. The research, soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at people’s reported happiness after spending money on themselves or giving to other people. In two different scenarios, those who spent the money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness—an expected condition of diminishing happiness scientists call hedonic adaptation—but those who spent the money on others bucked the phenomenon and maintained a steady level of happiness. —K.C.

Kiley Crossland

Kiley reports on marriage, family, and sexuality for WORLD Digital. Follow Kiley on Twitter @KileyCrossland.

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  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 01/06/2019 06:38 am

    When genes are edited in a plant, there is a lot of testing done to make sure that the right gene was changed, and that nothing else was messed up along the way. And if there is a problem? Those plants can simply be discarded, and the researcher tries again.

    Now try replacing "plant" with "human", and you can get an idea of why human gene editing, cloning, etc. is a problem. If nothing else, far too many humans would die in the course of perfecting the process.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Sun, 01/06/2019 09:07 am

    When talking about ethics we should remember that what was considered horrible a generation ago is accepted and promoted today.  When enough people have "evolved" ethically (and that can happen very rapidly) the unthinkable will be endorsed.   We would be well advised to lean on God's standards because the other kind constantly change.