One of my favorite clichés is, “Good news, bad news, who can tell the difference?” – supposedly based on an ancient Chinese parable.
This week that old wisdom applies to a new scientific breakthrough in gene editing that resulted in the words “designer babies” being included in numerous national and world headlines.
After biting the designer-babies “click bait” hook, I dug deeper and discovered that the real story, without the headline hype, holds great promise for the potential elimination of many heritable diseases.
Let’s begin with the facts that prompted the sensational science-fiction headlines stemming from research at the Oregon Health and Science University.
On Aug. 2, posted in Nature, an international journal of science, was the following headline and subhead:
CRISPR fixes disease gene in viable human embryos
Gene-editing experiment pushes scientific and ethical boundaries
The first paragraph reads:
An international team of researchers has used CRISPR–Cas9 gene editing – a technique that allows scientists to make precise changes to genomes with relative ease – to correct a disease-causing mutation in dozens of viable human embryos. The study represents a significant improvement in efficiency and accuracy over previous efforts.
The second paragraph specifically explained why this research could save young lives:
The researchers targeted a mutation in a gene called MYBPC3. Such mutations cause the heart muscle to thicken – a condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that is the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes.
Nature’s report linked to the original medical study titled: “Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos.”
The first sentence of the detailed study reads:
“Genome editing has potential for the targeted correction of germline mutations.”
In layman’s terms, a gene mutation in a human embryo was repaired using a gene-editing tool called a CRISPR-Cas9 – described as a pair of “molecular scissors” that corrects mutant genes.
So far no mention of “designer babies,” because this research was not about seeking human perfection – rather correcting harmful mutant genes that are passed from generation to generation causing great harm and even early death.
The leader of the Oregon Health and Science University gene editing team, reproductive biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov, stated the research was about “correcting” genes that cause diseases, not altering them.
Correcting vs. altering is the key difference. Also, in the experiments, 42 of the 58 embryos used were successfully corrected, but the embryos were not destined for implantation in a child-bearing woman.
Mitalipov, in the New York Post, addressing the specific hereditary heart muscle condition corrected by his gene team, said:
“Every generation on would carry this repair because we’ve removed the disease-causing gene variant from that family’s lineage.” Adding, “By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population.”
Altering genes, ideally resulting in disease-free, superior humans with perfect features and extraordinary brainpower, is material better suited for movies and science fiction. Furthermore, I believe that when mankind decides to play God and create or clone humans in labs without God’s help that is when HE will unleash HIS wrath. After all, God is the ultimate creator and does not need or want our help.
But in the meantime, rather than creating legions of brainy supermodels, Mitalipov is focused and hopes the correcting-gene strategy “could one day be used to prevent a slew of heritable diseases caused by gene mutations, which include Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.”
Certainly, this is remarkable news with great promise for families afflicted with heritable diseases. Additionally, this gene correction work conducted in Oregon is privately funded because the National Institutes of Health does not fund research involving embryos. Not surprising, there is a fight brewing in Congress whether to continue this ban on the use of taxpayer funds.
That is where the politics of designer babies, threats of cloning and religious-based arguments conflict with the potential to “prevent a slew of heritable diseases caused by gene mutations.”
As reported this week scientists in the U.S. are making great strides in gene correcting with or without government funding, and it’s happening all over the globe – whether one supports it or not. Eventually, when the science becomes widespread we can expect governments to regulate how this science can be used.
And one day, in the not so distant future, if your family is plagued by a debilitating heritable disease and you are considering pregnancy, maybe you will be offered gene correction and gladly accept.
With that thought in mind, let’s circle back to the ancient Chinese parable, “Good news bad news who can tell the difference?” – because that is true of every new technology. And to that I must add one more truth from the world’s most popular ancient text:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
Sometimes that “knitting” is not perfect. However, the Creator has blessed mankind with talents to develop medical technology that continuously helps us to improve the health of future generations such as recent successful surgery inside the womb.
But HE will always be in charge of creation.