CRISPR and God’s Design

CRISPR and God's Design
The general media and scientific journals have given great attention to something called CRISPR (pronounced like the name of the refrigerator drawer where you stash fresh veggies). CRISPR was first reported in scientific journals and papers in 2012. Now it is being used by scientists all over the world as a method to modify human embryonic stem cells and answer questions about basic biology and development. Here is a sample of what Wikipedia says about it:

“CRISPR is an abbreviation of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats… A simple version of the CRISPR/Cas system, CRISPR/Cas9, has been modified to edit genomes… CRISPR/Cas genome-editing techniques have many potential applications, including medicine and crop seed enhancement. The use of CRISPR/Cas9-gRNA complex for genome editing was the AAAS’s choice for the breakthrough of the year in 2015. Bioethical concerns have been raised about the prospect of using CRISPR for germline editing.”

That last statement about this technique concerns many people. Are we “playing God” feeling that we can improve on what God has created? Is human genetic engineering going to threaten a catastrophic mistake in the future? Hollywood is already on this with dramas like Netflix’s Luke Cage.

CRISPR exploits something that microbes commonly do in the natural world. Bacteria defend themselves against viruses and other DNA in the environment by having snippets of foreign genetic material as molecular spacers which serve as borders. What scientists are doing is to pick those characteristics that CRISPR can use to eliminate a bad gene and insert a good one in place of it. We are taking something that God has designed into nature and using it to eliminate genetic disorders that may have been caused by human abuse of the environment.

This could be the tool to eliminate nerve damage and give quadriplegics and paraplegics full use of their arms and legs. Trials are already going on to eliminate cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, many forms of cancer, sickle cell anemia, beta thalassemia, and leukemia. This is not replacing God’s original design but rather using some of the tools God created to repair things damaged by time and human abuse. Scientists are harnessing an ancient biological process to edit the code of life. God’s design is what makes this possible and offers great hope for the future of people afflicted with disorders which have not been within our medical reach in the past.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Reference: Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 2018, pages 22-27.

Gene Editing and Better Babies

Gene Editing
A major debate is in the works as scientists experiment with gene editing using CRISPR/Cas9 to fix mutations that cause heart and blood disorders. CRISPR/Cas9 acts as molecular scissors to alter human DNA. The technology is advancing so rapidly that scientists and ethicists are holding conferences to discuss how the technology should be used.

The Hastings Center, which is a bioethics research institute, is sponsoring discussions among experts attempting to give some guidelines for the proper use of gene editing. A panel of ethicists convened by the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and Medicine has said that gene editing should be used to correct diseases, but not to create characteristics that don’t have to do with health.

Movies like Gattaca have given an awareness of the potential problems with genetic engineering. The Center for Genetics and Society has pointed out that people who are taller and fair-skinned tend to make more money than the general population. The question of whether parents should edit the genes of their children to give those characteristics is an extreme example of how gene editing might be misused.

In the past, we have pointed out the difficulty with any new scientific discovery. We raised the question of whether cloning would be used to produce better crops and save endangered species, or whether it would produce a strain of super-humans endowed with the characteristics of a demented ruler like Hitler–the Boys from Brazil scenario.

From a biblical standpoint, we have to realize that when God created the first humans, they were physically perfect. Many of our diseases and disorders have to a great extent been the product of human greed and foolishness. Pollution, misuse of chemicals and radiation, and a host of recreational drugs have produced a large number of maladies in humans. To be able to go into the cells and edit the DNA to correct genetic disorders may be appropriate, but the potential for misuse is always there.

The moral conviction of the people making these decisions becomes the critical factor. Rather than decry advances in science, we need to join the search to find answers to disease and suffering. Gene editing is the future, let us encourage the best minds in the Christian community to use their God-given talents and abilities to find solutions and direct the use of our knowledge and technology.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Data from Science News, January 20, 2018, pages 4-5.

Genetically Modified Human Embryos

Genetically Modified Human Embryos
Shoukhrat Mitalipov

Chinese scientists have conducted at least three experiments to create genetically modified human embryos. Now, MIT Technology Review reports that a team of scientists in the United States has edited the DNA of human embryos. The experiment was performed at Oregon Health and Science University, a public university in Portland, under the leadership of Shoukhrat Mitalipov. It is apparently the first time this has been done in the United States, and it involved a greater number of embryos than the Chinese experiments.

Mitalipov, who was born in the former Soviet Union and received his Ph.D. in Moscow, came to the U.S. because there was a lack of funding for genetic experimentation in his home country. Since coming to the U.S. he has cloned monkeys and human embryos. This is the first time for editing the DNA of a human embryo.

The scientists used a gene-editing tool called CRISPR, which we have reported on before. The goal of the experiment is supposed to be to find a way to correct genetic defects in humans. The sperm used to fertilize the embryos came from a man with a genetic defect. The embryos were destroyed after a few days because in the United States it is illegal to allow genetically modified human embryos to develop into full-term babies.

In February the U.S. National Academy of Sciences gave support for creating gene-edited babies if the purpose is the elimination of serious genetic diseases. Genetically modified human embryos can develop into gene-modified humans who will pass on the genetic changes to their offspring. This may offer hope for eliminating genetic defects. However, it also has implications for the nightmare scenarios of a science-fiction movie. When humans start to play God by manipulating the DNA of our children, what if they make a disastrous mistake? The United States Intelligence Agency listed CRISPR as a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”

Beyond the implications of Frankenstein-like creatures, there is the aspect of “designer children.” DNA could potentially be edited to select the sex, physical features, and even intelligence of an unborn child. So far that is illegal in the United States, but not in other countries. One of the problems the Chinese experimenters encountered is called “mosaicism,” in which the change to the DNA is not taken on by all of the cells. The implications of a person with multiple DNA codes in different cells is not fully understood. Other CRISPR errors referred to as “off target” effects could result in serious genetic defects. Mitalipov’s team claims to have those problems under control.

The report from this U.S. experiment should be published soon, and it will certainly be in the news. Christians should be concerned about where this is leading. Do humans have the right to play God with our DNA? What could be the result of “off target” mistakes? What about the ethics of creating human embryos for experimentation and then destroying them? Do the possible breakthroughs in the elimination of genetic diseases outweigh the dangers? What about the moral cost to our society as we go down this road?

One thing you can be sure of is that humans will continue to create genetically modified human embryos. If it doesn’t happen in the United States, it will happen in other countries. You can also be sure that there will be some scientists who will do so with less than pure motives. In Mary Shelley’s classic book telling about a scientist’s desire to create a new species, Victor Frankenstein said, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.” The power to become a god creating new species of humans can overpower pure motives as it did with Victor Frankenstein. The outcome could be even more tragic than in the novel.

It’s time to consider the many times the Bible tells of the value of every human being and the love God has for us. Many people have become concerned about GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) in food. How much more should we be concerned about Genetically Modified Humans?
–Roland Earnst © 2017