Chinese Scientists Manipulate Genome of Human Embryos

Pilar Calva
May 28, 2015
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

A team of geneticists at Sun Yat-sen University in China, led by Dr. Junjiu Huang, has claimed success in genetically modifying human beings. They used "non-viable" human embryos obtained through in-vitro fertilization and modified the gene responsible for beta thalassemia , a blood disease that can be fatal. They used a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9, by which genes can be edited to correct errors or undesired mutations. The editing technique was used on 86 embryos, 71 of whom survived. Of the 71 survivors, the technique was successful in 28 embryos, but the broken gene that causes beta thalassemia was corrected only in four embryos.

There are some ethical implications to all this:

1. In-vitro fertilization has various ethical problems, but here we mention only that this technique often results in human "extras." Embryos initially created for reproductive purposes, are frozen in anticipation of a future transfer to their mother's uterus. Due to various causes, they can be left abandoned in the freezer and are thus suspended in time. They are alive - even in a frozen state, metabolic activity occurs - and are unique children of specific parents. A Rand study in 2003 estimated the number of frozen embryos in the United States at 400,000. As IVF remains unregulated, there are no current study figures, though given the explosion of the procedure the current number may well be in the millions.

On other occasions, embryos are created in laboratories for the set purpose of using them in research. For this, researchers unite gametes (i.e. sperm and egg) that had been previously obtained and sometimes frozen. The embryos in this case - human beings from the moment of the uniting of the gametes, even though this occurred in a laboratory - were used with the pretext that they were "not viable." But that they cannot survive does not change the reality that they are human persons in a vulnerable situation, valuable in and of themselves .

Science, under the pretext of progress, uses these people, who cannot give their consent, and thus violates the therapeutic principle which requires, among other things, that interventions on a person be for the benefit of that person and that the risks be commensurate with the potential benefits. Researchers are taking advantage of their abandonment and, above all, fail to recognize them as having value in and of themselves, instead, seeing them as objects useful for investigation.

2. The CRISPR/Cas9 technique is utilized to manipulate the genome (an organism's complete set of DNA, including all of its genes) by uniting to, and cutting, DNA in specific spots, usually either to repair or to substitute a portion of an abnormal gene. Any manipulation of genes has to be carried out first on somatic cells (cells of the body that are not gametes), of animals . Only when success has been reached with animal cells, can somatic cells of humans be considered. By limiting the manipulation to somatic cells, the risk is limited to only the part of the body in need of repair, also a condition necessary to satisfy the therapeutic principle.

Though it seems this technique was first applied in somatic cells of animal embryos, use on a human embryo is never justified. The research team's decision to do so was practical: for if an embryo's, (or similarly a gamete's) gene is successfully repaired, then all of the cells would then be repaired. Nevertheless, since the consequences on the health and life of the embryo cannot be foreseen, the procedure cannot be justified. In this case, the procedure resulted in a high rate of death. That the embryos were viewed as "non-viable" by the researchers does not justify their actions.

Moreover, once we begin with the genetic manipulation of embryos for therapeutic purposes, the door is opened to manipulation for eugenic purposes. Furthermore, the unforeseen consequences are not just limited to the embryo, but, because we are manipulating reproductive cells, they will be passed on to all descendants.

3. Objectification of the person. The research team justified using these embryos because they had triploid chromosomes, that is, instead of having pairs of chromosomes (46), they had triplets (69), due to the ovum having been fertilized by two sperm. This biological characteristic, which threatens life, served as an apparent justification to use them for an investigation that endangered their lives, and benefitted others, not them. As noted, valuing a person not for himself, but rather for the usefulness he might represent for scientific progress is a violation of the therapeutic principle.

It is notable that the reaction of the scientific community to this research was diverse. Numerous scientists called for a moratorium in applying these techniques. The journals Nature and Science rejected the article for ethical reasons. In the end, the investigation was published in the journal Protein and Cell . Very liberal scientists consider this an opportunity, advancing the belief that in whatever spot of the world, any and every type of experiment can be done. Science, however, should always be at the service of the human person, and should respect the laws of nature.