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US Enters “Brave New World” of Gene Editing

embryo puzzleResearchers in Portland, Oregon have become the first to create genetically modified human embryos in the laboratory using a controversial technique designed to remove disease-causing genes.

According to MIT Technology Review, a team of researchers led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, successfully altered the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR. This technique involves correcting defective genes that cause inherited diseases when embryos are in their earliest stages.

“Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans,” Technology Review reports.

The process of eradicating or correcting genes that cause inherited diseases is known as “germline engineering” because any genetically modified child who is born from this process would then pass on these gene changes to future generations.

Critics believe germline experiments will open the floodgates to the creation of “designer babies” who are created in laboratories and engineered with all kinds of genetic enhancements such as increased intelligence and physical traits.

In spite of those complaints, a recent report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences gave a potential green light to germline modification via the use of CRISPR, but only if it was used for the elimination of serious diseases – not for making “genetic enhancements” such as higher intelligence.

“Genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people,” said Alta Charo, co-chair of the NAS’s study committee and professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

34795002 - dna helix and human eye in abstract blue backgroundEven though none of the embryos created in Mitalipov’s research were implanted in a womb, a person familiar with the research told Technology Review that “many tens” of human IVF embryos were created for the experiment. They were created from donated sperm from men carrying inherited disease mutations.

At present, U.S. law prohibits the creation of an edited IVF baby but, as this research proves, it hasn’t stopped researchers from creating scores of these innocent lives who are then destroyed.

The Catholic Church has been one of the most outspoken supporters of these innocent lives who are being sacrificed on the altar of science.

“It would on the one hand be illusory to claim that scientific research and its applications are morally neutral; on the other hand one cannot derive criteria for guidance from mere technical efficiency, from research's possible usefulness to some at the expense of others, or, worse still, from prevailing ideologies,” writes Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger while he was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Thus science and technology require, for their own intrinsic meaning, an unconditional respect for the fundamental criteria of the moral law: that is to say, they must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights and his true and integral good according to the design and will of God.”

From the moment a human zygote has formed, it “demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality.”

The Church isn’t alone in its condemnation of these practices. When Chinese scientists published similar research in 2015 they were roundly condemned by other scientists and watchdog groups who argued that the research is unsafe, premature and raises disturbing ethical concerns.

"No researcher should have the moral warrant to flout the globally widespread policy agreement against modifying the human germline," Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society, a watchdog group, wrote to NPR at the time. "This paper demonstrates the enormous safety risks that any such attempt would entail, and underlines the urgency of working to forestall other such efforts. The social dangers of creating genetically modified human beings cannot be overstated."

George Daley, a stem cell researcher at Harvard, agreed.

"Their data reinforces the wisdom of the calls for a moratorium on any clinical practice of embryo gene editing, because current methods are too inefficient and unsafe. Further, there needs to be careful consideration not only of the safety but also of the social and ethical implications of applying this technology to alter our germ lines."

As NPR reports, scientists have long been able to manipulate DNA but until now, it’s been considered taboo to make changes in a human egg, sperm or embryo because those changes would then become a permanent part of the human genetic blueprint. Aside from opening the door to the temptation to create designer babies, what if scientists make a mistake which would mean offspring passing on this mistake for generations?

Unfortunately, as Technology Review reports, gene editing experimentation is already being conducted in laboratories around the world where there are no laws to stop it – which means it’s only a matter of time before someone creates a gene-edited person.

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