Researchers in Oregon have announced that they have successfully altered genes in a human embryo for the first time in the United States, but Catholic ethicists warn that the procedure was morally objectionable for many reasons.
“Very young humans have been created in vitro and treated not as ends, but as mere means or research fodder to achieve particular investigative goals,” said Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Director of Education for the The National Catholic Bioethics Center, in a statement to CNA. “Their value as human beings is profoundly denigrated every time they are created, experimented upon, and then killed. Moreover, if such embryos were to grow up, as will doubtless occur in the future, there are likely to be unintended effects from modifying their genes,” Fr. Pacholczyk continued.
A team of scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health and Science University announced this week that they used a technology known as CRISPR to edit sections of the human genome, performing the procedure on embryonic humans. The technology, which selectively “snips” and trims areas of the genome and replaces it with strands of desired DNA, has previously been used on adult humans and other species.
Researchers in China have also announced that they have used the technology on embryos, but the edited genes were only present in some of the embryonic subject’s cells.
While researchers laud the breakthrough as a step towards the birth of genetically modified humans and the potential ability to treat inherited genetic diseases, the embryonic humans created and tested in both the US and Chinese experiments were all destroyed within a few days of the procedure. If allowed to survive, the subject embryos would have carried the edits they received in their own egg and sperm cells, and thus have the ability to pass those edited genes down to future generations.
CNA also spoke to John DiCamillo, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, in February about CRISPR technology more broadly, and the ethics surrounding the technique. He stressed that while Catholics “need to be attentive to where the dangers are” surrounding CRISPR technology generally, he cautioned Catholics not to “automatically consider any kind of gene editing to be automatically a problem.”
He pointed to gene therapy trials for disorders such as sickle cell disease and cancer that show promise for treating difficult disorders. He also noted that there “could be limited situations that could exist where the germ line could be legitimately edited. In other words, making changes to sperm, to eggs, or to early embryos as a way of potentially addressing diseases — inheritable diseases and so forth.”
However, permitting edits to germ line cells - such as embryos, eggs, and sperm — could also be “very dangerous on multiple levels,” DiCamillo warned. Since the technology is so new, patients or their descendants could experience a range of “unintended, perhaps harmful, side effects that can now be transmitted, inherited by other individuals down the line.” An embryo who experiences gene modification could also carry and pass on edited genes.
Echoing similar concerns, Fr. Pacholczyk pointing as well to the guidance from the National Academies of Sciences' 2017 report on human gene editing. In the report, he said, the scientists point out that this kind of gene editing is controversial “precisely because the resulting genetic changes would be inherited by the next generation, and the technology therefore would cross a line many have viewed as ethically inviolable.”
Fr. Pacholczyk also stressed the importance of limiting gene editing to therapeutic purposes, with the subject's best interests in mind. He stated that human beings should never be subjected to the research without themselves or their guardians being offered informed consent and without the treatment being ordered to the patient’s health and healing.
In the cases in Oregon, however, the parents of the children created were not able to give valid consent because ethical consent “by definition excludes any approval of directly causing their death or otherwise using [subjects] as mere means to an end.” “These experiments were nontherapeutic, as the goal was ultimately to destroy the embryos,” Fr. Pacholczyk continued. “Consent is particularly important when dealing with very vulnerable research subjects, and human embryos are among the most vulnerable of God’s creatures.”
Currently, Food and Drug Administration regulations require that all embryos who experience gene editing are later destroyed.
Furthermore, to be ethical, any applications or experiments utilizing CRISPR or other gene editing technology cannot use any other methods in its process which are themselves intrinsically immoral, Fr.Pacholczyk said. The Catholic Church forbids immoral methods of removing spermatozoa and ova from the body outside of intercourse and conception of new human beings through in vitro methods because both techniques dissociate procreation from the integrally personal context of the conjugal act.