Editing human DNA

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 2nd of July, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, gene edited babies. 

It was last year that a Chinese scientist announced the birth of twin girls from genetically modified embryos. The scientist, He Jiankui, created an uproar in the scientific community over it. 

He’d changed the girls’ DNA using an editing tool known as CRISPR. Scientists called what Jiankui had done dangerous and irresponsible. Some called for a global moratorium on editing DNA in human embryos.

EICHER: But that effort didn’t gain much traction. And then last month, another scientist announced plans to implant genetically modified embryos into women. 

Russian molecular biologist Denis Rebrikov defended his work—the audio here from NPR.

REBRIKOV: I don’t know how it can be unethical if for example the baby will be, we can make him normal? Why it’s unethical?

REICHARD: Rebrikov is not alone in his justification for DNA alteration. 

Some American scientists are lobbying to lift the government’s ban on funding experiments on human embryo DNA. In May, a House subcommittee drafted a bill that would do just that.

Joining us now to talk about this controversy is Dr. David Stevens. He heads the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.

Good morning, Dr. Stevens.

DAVID STEVENS, GUEST: It’s good to be with you. 

REICHARD: Some scientists say gene editing is an opportunity to eradicate disease. What’s wrong with that argument?

STEVENS: Well, there’s something right with it and something wrong with it. I mean, we can do things with the new CRISPR technology in actually treating patients. And that has enormous potential. 

For example, there’s a study beginning looking at treating multiple myeloma and sarcoma and other cancers where they actually take immune cells out of a patient’s body, genetically modify them so that they will attack the cancer, and kill it. That holds great potential, there’s some risk involved. But it doesn’t get into the moral issue of editing embryos. 

And so this CRISPR technology, like a lot of technologies, can be used for good or could be used for bad things. And what’s happening with the CRISPR technology and embryos is going on all over the world now already and that is it’s a modify and kill. What’s making the news is the babies actually being born. But scientists in this country and around the world are modifying embryos, letting them live for awhile to see the effects of that, but not implanting them and letting them be born. And so we have this modify and kill policy, which—of course—is immoral. 

But the scientists involved in this are rogue scientists. They’re cowboys. They’re going to give this technology a bad reputation, overreaction by legislators, and Congress. And all the sudden they’ll not allow this type of experimentation. So that’s what they’re concerned about.

REICHARD: What are some of the unintended consequences of editing DNA other than what you’ve just mentioned?

STEVENS: Yeah, it’s interesting. The thing done in China was to try to prevent HIV, and there’s a naturally occurring variation of a gene. And the gene’s called CCR-5. And a few people in the world have that variation. And when you have it, you don’t get HIV. 

Well, that’s wonderful that you don’t get HIV if you’re exposed to it. But they went back after he modified these embryos and looked at people who actually had that variation in their gene. They went to a huge database of genetic material in the UK. And what they found was a 21 percent greater chance of dying by age 76 if you have that gene occurring naturally with that variation. 

So what he did with those babies perhaps could prevent them from getting HIV, if they were exposed, but he definitely caused them to have about a 1 out of 5 chance of dying earlier than they would have died. 

REICHARD: These experiments are focused on disease. But there’s nothing to prevent scientists from using gene editing to guarantee certain traits, like eye and hair color. Do you think debates over so-called designer babies are already here? 

STEVENS: It is. And this technology is simple. It’s not terribly expensive and the harm in the genetic pool is similar in my mind to creating the atom bomb. 

Can we have nuclear reactors and make electricity? Yes. That’s great. But we also have the other side of destroying many people. 

And what happens with this type of modification, once you’re able to do it, designer babies happens. You can have a super warrior class. You have the whole issue of the haves and have-nots. Who can afford this technology?

All sorts of things as this continues to develop are of great concern. 

REICHARD: Christians aren’t the only ones who object to creating gene-edited embryos. Even secular ethicists are urging caution in this area. Is it possible to find common ground here to hold back the tide on this technology?

STEVENS: Well, one of the problems in holding back the tide is it’s based on the country that you’re in and how they regulate it. There’s no world organization, though people talk about setting standards for the whole world. Who’s going to enforce them? 

And even in our own Congress we have a prohibition on editing human eggs, sperm, and embryos using government funds. But people are doing it without government funds. So how do you enforce this unless there are penalties in the law that actually have consequences for people that break it?

Well, science needs to be regulated. It can be used for good or it can be used for evil. And, unfortunately, we’re not regulating this area of science hardly at all.

REICHARD: David Stevens is CEO of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. Thanks so much for joining us today.

STEVENS: Great to be with you.

(Photo/University of Texas)

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