Some news about an experiment on human embryos garnered attention and not just from the scientific community.
The tweet from OneZero, which is “a Medium publication about tech and science,” reads,
The research is documented on bioRxiv, a place preprint papers can be published and made available for reading and use before being peer-reviewed. The tweet about the news article which covered this research drew a variety of comments, from people lauding the research as helping pave the way for a new world without the burden of genetic deformities, to people balking at the fact human organisms are being used and discarded for basic research.
So what, exactly, is the big deal about this paper and about research on human embryos in general? Were the outcomes of this project surprising? Is the research ethical?
The research group was a collaboration of scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London and the University of Oxford. The purpose of the research was two-fold: to use CRISPR-Cas9 technology to attempt to edit a specific gene in preimplantation human embryos to investigate the function of a protein encoded by that gene; and to test a specific process of more accurately characterizing the genetic outcomes of the editing. The protein encoded by the targeted gene is known to be very important in determining whether a cell is totipotent — i.e., whether the cell remains in a state where it can give rise to a whole new organism, not just a specific cell type. CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene editing tool known to have off-target effects, that is, it affects more than just the gene it is intended to target; it also can have unwanted on-target effects, such as mutations, additions, or deletions to the DNA.
Researchers actually used no new human embryos. They reused and reprocessed the data and DNA from a previous study of theirs which used 37 human embryos as the experimental group and 17 human embryos as the control group. The embryos were all donated with informed consent from parents who had undergone IVF treatment, and who were not given any financial incentives to donate. The parents knew the embryos would be genetically modified and killed before they reached 14 days in age.
For this preprint manuscript, they reanalyzed data from 23 of the embryos in the experimental group and 8 in the control group. From there, a subset of data from 25 human embryos — 18 in the experimental group and 7 in the control group — were tested using the specific process they had set up to better characterize genetic outcomes. Eight of the 18 human embryos in the control group “had evidence of abnormalities on chromosome 6” [the chromosome the gene they were targeting is on], and of those 8 which had abnormalities, 4 of them were considered on-target abnormalities. The on-target abnormalities seemed to be more frequent than they were expecting. Lastly, they found a substantial loss of heterozygosity in the targeted (experimental) group. A heterozygous organism is one which has a different form of the same gene (allele) at the same place on a chromosome. A homozygous organism is one which has the same allele at the same place on a chromosome. Humans get two alleles for each gene, one from their mom and one from their dad. The researchers assumed the embryos were heterozygous for the targeted gene to start with (this was not known for sure, since the parents’ genotypes were unknown), so the fact that after using CRISPR-Cas9 editing the targeted gene became homozygous in a majority of the samples indicated the attempt to edit the gene had drastic unintended consequences. The researchers conclude “further basic research in a number of cellular contexts to resolve the damage that occurs following genome editing” is needed.
The results in and of themselves would not be that surprising, if at all, to other scientists in the field or to anyone familiar with CRISPR-Cas9. As stated before, off-target effects and mutations are common with this gene editing tool, which is why so much research is being done on optimizing its on-target effects and reducing or eliminating off-target effects. And this group is certainly not the first group to attempt gene editing on human embryos.
In April 2015, scientists in China were the first to publish work on gene editing of human embryos. They tried to sidestep ethical controversy by using, once again, human embryos leftover from IVF treatments, but ones which were considered non-viable because they had 3 pronuclei instead of the normal 2 pronuclei. Using 86 human embryos, they found only a fraction did not have on- or off-target effects due to the gene editing. Then in 2018, a Chinese scientist claimed to have successfully genetically modified human embryos, resulting in a live birth of twin girls. However, this claim has not been substantiated.
In August 2017, the first such paper by researchers in the United States was published. Nineteen control embryos and 54 edited embryos were used. Informed consent was obtained from embryo and gamete donors, who were also compensated for their time. The research not only used embryos already made for fertility treatment purposes, but also used gametes to create embryos for the specific purpose of experimentation.
And in October 2017, the same group who re-analyzed the data in the preprint paper being discussed published their original data. They were the first group in the UK to publish research on genetically modifying human embryos.
Research using human embryos has been going on for decades, linked closely to IVF technology, and the ethics of using human embryos for research purposes has been debated just as long. Currently, the general consensus is a 14-day rule: no embryos can be grown in a lab for more than 14 days post-fertilization, or until the primitive streak forms, whichever comes first.
Research on human embryos is often done with the lens of correcting genetic deformities so offspring have a chance of living without some abnormality. While this seems like a wonderful goal — a world where all babies can hear, see, walk, and develop “normally” — this idea does not come without ethical concerns. If technology for gene editing prenatal humans ever becomes workable, only the richest, most privileged people would be able to afford gene therapy for their babies. Efforts to offer gene therapy for free to underprivileged people or people in developing nations could easily hide eugenics-based or population-control initiatives.
If it is possible to create perfect babies, perhaps some would say only perfect babies deserve to live, pushing for sterilization or abortion for those who cannot pay for gene editing.
If these kinds of attitudes or outcomes seem far-fetched to you, consider the fact that already, babies who are not considered “normal” are aborted at far higher rates than “normal” babies. Already, abortion and birth control, which are known to be harmful to women, are pushed in developing countries as a means of population control.
The bare truth is, this kind of research commodifies and kills human organisms, tiny human beings at a developmental stage all of you reading this article and every other human in the world have passed through. I have already addressed the ethics of human embryonic stem cell research, and this type of research is no different. Research using human embryos puts a price tag on human beings.
In effect, this type of research says, “It’s ok if these human beings are experimented on without their consent, given away like property, and killed and discarded like any other biological lab waste.”
For some scientists, like the United States researcher who not only used human embryos already made for other purposes but created human embryos for the sole purpose of experimenting on them, their work effectively implies, “It’s ok for some humans to be created just to experiment on them and then kill them when they can no longer be used.”
And why do we find that so easy to believe? Why do we just accept this type of research as needed, as morally permissible? Because human beings at the embryonic stage of development happen not to look like you or me? They don’t look like our sons or our daughters; they don’t look like those newborn babies with cute hats and pretty bows? Because they are so small, it’s easy to just not think about them (out of sight, out of mind)? Would we dare say we would be content to live in a society where parents could sign over their 4 year old child to a research lab as long as they gave informed consent, for that child to be genetically modified, and then for that child to be killed and placed in a biohazard bag when the experiment is done — all while your tax dollars go to the government which turns around and funds this research? Would we be fine living in a society where a baby could be made for the sole purpose of being experimented on? I doubt any of us would want to be a part of that kind of society.
We as pro-lifers can make our voices heard on the matter of human embryo research. The child killed at 14 days old or fewer in the lab is the same as you and me. Their size and how they look does not change the fact that they are a living human being, a whole, unique human organism, and they deserve to have their rights recognized and protected, too, not cavalierly trampled on in the name of science and progress.