In 2004, Dr. Vincent Fortanasce lost the fight as president of “No on 71,” the California ballot measure to allocate $3 billion over 10 years to stem cell research.
This June 4, the state senate advanced SB 128, an assisted suicide bill. The “End of Life Option Act” for terminally ill patients, which the nationally recognized neurologist and bioethicist has steadfastly campaigned against, needs only the Assembly’s approval and Governor Jerry Brown’s signature to become law.
But right now he’s also very much concerned about the morality of a new DNA-editing technique developed by Chinese researchers to alter a gene in human embryos for the first time.
In the past, genetic manipulation has pretty much been the storyline for science fiction horror movies like the classic “The Island of Doctor Moreau.” The CRISPR/Cas9 method, however, is both relatively easy and inexpensive to perform. Reportedly, biologists with no special skills can do it in their laboratories.
And UC Davis stem cell biologist Paul Knoepfler says this cutting-edge, still-controversial gene technology is progressing so fast that “it could render all the ethical debates moot.”
“What I believe will really happen worries me tremendously,” Dr. Fortanasce recently told The Tidings. “Because there are going to be people who aren’t the same. If this happens — and it’s going to happen — we’re going to have two classes of people for the first time, those with the new [modified] genes and those still with the old genes.
“What we’re talking about here is ‘designer’ babies. What people don’t understand is what ‘designer’ babies really means. And how will these ‘designer’ babies, once they’re in control, see us? How will they judge us? Will they treat us like we treat the rest of the animal kingdom? Once we do make superior beings, they’re going to regard us as inferior.”
After a moment, he added, “You know, if they’re all 10-feet-tall, right, and we’re only five-feet-tall, that’s one way of looking at it physically. But from the intellectual standpoint, that is really where the judgement is going to be.”
Sounding the alarm
Around the nation, scientists have indeed sounded the alarm against DNA editing of human embryos. “Until safety issues are cleared up and there is general consensus that it is OK, there should be a moratorium on embryo editing,” said George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School.
Edward Lamphier, chairman of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine in Washington, DC, and his colleagues called on scientists not to modify human embryos even for study. “Such research could be exploited for non-therapeutic modifications,” he stated. “We are concerned that a public outcry about such an ethical breach could hinder a promising area of therapeutic development.”
Caltech biologist and Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore told The Los Angeles Times, “We’ve got to take this seriously.”
He pointed out that scientists working in the field of genetics have recognized for decades the possibility of making changes in a person’s DNA that would be passed from generation to generation. “It was logistically so complex that there was no clear path forward, so we didn’t worry about it a lot,” said Baltimore. “Now it’s here.”
In late April, the director of the National Institutes of Health announced that NIH wouldn’t fund any gene-editing research with human embryos. Dr. Francis Collins stressed that such experiments “had been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.”
And even the Chinese researchers, who genetically modified so-called “non-viable” human embryos, halted their work after only 28 of 54 surviving embryos tested were successfully spliced. “If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100 percent,” said Junjiu Huang, the team’s leader. “That’s why we stopped. We still think it’s too immature.”
Dr. Fortanasce says these scientists and their institutions are well advised to be cautious about gene editing. But he also points out that most don’t have a real sense of morality underlying their motivations.
“When you look at the majority of these scientists, their objection is because they feel ‘they’re not ready,’ ‘it could be dangerous,’ ‘it’s not safe.’ And so, therefore, these aren’t moral discussions. These are practical discussions. They only have to do with safety and is it pragmatic — that is, does it work? They only have to do with effectiveness and safety.
“So most people have to realize that there’s a big difference in many of these scientists and governmental agencies saying something is ‘good or bad.’ But they’re not using ‘good and bad’ in the moral sense, but using it in the pragmatic sense. And that’s a very important point.”
Dr. Fortanasce, who is on the board of the National Catholic Bioethics Center along with Archbishop José H. Gomez, says it’s crucial to realize why people are such big backers of CRISPR/Cas9. “Fame and money, of course, are a part of it. Huge profits will be made from the procedure,” he said.
But he believes the main reason is man’s desire for immortality along with the desire to be the God-like creator.
Yet, he points out that the consequences in this still experimental field can be dire. Genes and the double helix that make up a person’s DNA are extremely well balanced. So changing the genes in one area can throw off the entire 46-gene series.
“There will be mistakes made,” he said. “There will be genetic monsters produced. And instead of the ‘superhuman being,’ what’s going to happen is that there’s going to be many malformed children.”
The neurologist believes there will be an outcry and, hopefully, laws prohibiting this type of science: “But see, once again, it will be done from a pragmatic standpoint and not from a moral standpoint. And that’s an important point, I think, we Catholics have to make: the moral standpoint of how many human embryos — human beings — will be destroyed and severely damaged.”
Today there are no international laws governing gene manipulation, he reports, no worldwide agreements, such as with nuclear energy regulation.
“What I really think is if no country or international agency steps forward to do it, that the Vatican should show the way and come out with its own rules,” he said. “Because it is a country. And this is exactly how our Catholic faith can state very clearly how it feels that this is completely immoral.”
But Dr. Fortanase was quick to point out that there is an established genetic therapeutic technique that doesn’t involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence. It’s called “epigenetics,” and it boils down to turning genes on and off, making them active versus inactive. This gene silencing is caused by a simple molecule placed on a particular gene. In essence, it acts as a natural switch.
“So there is a difference between gene editing and epigenetics,” he explained. “Epigenetics is no different than giving a kidney or taking out a tumor. We’re not Christian Scientists where we believe there can be no intervention. It’s a means of doing gene expression alterations without actually changing the gene.”
There has been a renewed interest in epigenetics, which has spurred new research findings linking epigenetic changes to many medical conditions. These include various cancers as well as mental retardation, immune, neuropsychiatric and pediatric disorders.
“People need to understand that we’re not trying to stop all types of genetic research,” said Dr. Fortanase. “Epigenetics is well within the Church’s permissibility. Because, in fact, it is not changing the gene. What it’s doing is turning one on and off.”