What's Wrong with Designer Genes?

In April, a group of Chinese scientists announced a world first: They had modified human embryos using gene editing technology. The announcement was met with skepticism and widespread disapproval. Nature and Science, two leading publications, rejected the study, and scientists and bioethicists across the political spectrum claimed that this type of genetic modification crossed an impermissible ethical line.

We agree, and unflinchingly reject this line of research, and we believe the church needs to become aware of this latest scientific development in genetic research, why it was attempted, the fallout and its consequences, and what specific ethical lines it crosses for us as Christians.

Bioethical Concerns

The technique the scientists used has the potential for correcting genetic errors in mature cells, while not affecting the patient's reproductive DNA (carried in the eggs or sperm, often referred to as germline cells). The technique holds promise for good genetic interventions and has been used to modify bone marrow cells in order to increase resistance to HIV. (For more on the technique, see the short appendix at the end of this article.)

However, applying this powerful technique to embryonic cells, rather than mature cells, raises the following three concerns, among others:

1. Safety and Unforeseeable Consequences

Of the 86 embryos the Chinese scientists reportedly used, 71 survived for two days. Of the 54 that were tested, 28 showed a genetic change, or had been "edited." The unhealthy gene was successfully removed. However, a corrected or healthy segment was spliced into only a few. Additionally, the editing complex did not confine itself to the targeted abnormal gene, but changed normal parts of the DNA.

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