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A Bacterial Protein (CRISPR/Cas9) Will Change Life on Earth

Recent scientific discoveries have opened an era where humans can alter the genetic makeup of any organism at will. Is this type of power safe in our hands? What will our future world look like, and who will decide?

A technology developed from a bacterial immune-system protein (CRISPR/Cas9) will change life on Earth faster than we think. CRISPR/Cas9 allows scientists to edit genomes at specific target sites, theoretically altering the genome of any organism (e.g., yeast, bacteria, plant, mosquito, animal, or human) at will. And with more than 30,000 researchers using CRISPR/Cas9, the potential changes already at hand are staggering.

We find ourselves facing the first CRISPR/Cas9 human clinical trial in the United States and the first manipulation of healthy human embryos with CRISPR/Cas9 in a UK lab. Despite some significant challenges in using CRISPR/Cas9, such as off-target activity, the science speeds ahead. Christians better keep up.

Researchers Use CRISPR/Cas9 for Good Causes

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have cleared the first hurdle in using CRISPR/Cas9 in human clinical trials.1 The NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) has granted approval to alter T cells of 18 cancer patients using CRISPR/Cas9 in hopes of making tailored T cells better at fighting myeloma, melanoma, and sarcoma.

This trial will apply CRISPR/Cas9 technology in a highly focused and limited arena. By removing a patient’s T cells, altering the DNA coding for three proteins, and then reintroducing the modified cells back into the person from whom they originated, these trials should be fairly safe. Genetic modifications should affect only the specific T cells, improving their ability to fight and persist in their anticancer activities. If successful, this could reduce cancer recurrence in patients, and it would be a significant advancement in the fight against cancer.

Across the pond at London’s Francis Crick Institute, researcher Kathy Niakan has been granted permission to study early human development in embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Niakan will examine multiple specific genes in order to identify those most critical for normal human development. It is hoped that her research findings will lead to treatments preventing miscarriages and facilitating healthy pregnancies and births.

Unlike the proposed cancer treatment, where the scope of CRISPR modification is limited to specific T cells in a few individuals, the genetic modification of human embryos by CRISPR/Cas9 has the potential to affect all subsequent generations. When genetic manipulation introduces changes into a zygote, every cell in the resulting adult organism will contain the modification, including the germ cells (eggs or sperm). It follows that such genetic modifications (both intended and unintended) will be passed on to any subsequent offspring and enter the human population.

Gene-Editing Research Needs Regulation

Niakan required permission before she could embark on her manipulation of human embryos. UK law allows research in human embryo development up to 14 days under careful regulation and only upon informed consent by the germ cell donors. UK regulators ensure, through periodic inspections, that the embryos are only being used for specific, approved research projects. Each embryo is documented and traceable through each step, from the time it enters a research facility to the time it is used in an approved project.

No such federal regulation occurs in the United States. Federal regulations ban federal monies from funding such research, but if funding comes from a private (nongovernmental) source, these types of experiments are largely unregulated. US federal regulation of science occurs only if experimentation crosses into human trials or commercial veterinary or agricultural uses. Otherwise, any specific regulations vary from institution to institution, state to state, and internationally, from country to country. Some countries tightly regulate human embryonic research, some only have unenforceable guidelines, but in our global village, changing the human genome at a germ-line level in any country has the potential of altering human genetics for the broad population in every country.

For this reason, many are calling for caution, others for a moratorium, and still others for international consensus on regulating gene-editing of human embryos.

As I see it, only God can be all-powerful without danger, because his wisdom and justice are always equal to his power. Thus there is no authority on earth so inherently worthy of respect, or invested with a right so sacred, that I would want to let it act without oversight or rule without impediment.

–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Christianity’s Moral Compass Is Essential

Altering the human genome for future generations is not the only disconcerting application of CRISPR/Cas9. In a recent Time magazine article, Harvard researcher George Church said, “I worry a lot. And I have every reason to encourage citizens at large to worry as well.”2 His reasons for concern are echoed among many others in regard to a new and powerful technology like CRISPR/Cas9 that could help engineer superbugs for biological warfare or terrorism. Additional worries spring from scientific and political cultures that are often filled with those whose desire to do something first for the sake of personal recognition, advancement, and financial gain might lead them to take risks that could have far-reaching implications for all of us. So the voices of caution raised within the community need to be strongly heeded.

Selfishness, unchecked ambition, greed, power, and hubris are a few of the things we must guard against when a developing technology possesses such radical potential. A society that is fixated on science to the neglect of religion, philosophy, and the humanities is not a healthy or safe society. Our society is beginning to adopt a dangerous ideology that says all things are reducible to materialistic processes and physical entities.

When we embrace this, we have no rational basis to claim any action as immoral, and social norms will be set by those with political and economic power. Alongside a survival-of-the-fittest or social-Darwinism mentality, these ideologies could decimate our future.

Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, hubris can mask ignorance. There are significant complexities still poorly understood in the human genome. In 2016, there is still much of the genome that is unsequenced and unassembled (about 10 percent). Most of this is heterochromatin, but even euchromatic gaps in the human genome still persist.3

These sequences do not appear in reference genomes and are therefore omitted from genomic analyses, including considerations involving targeting of the CRISPR/Cas9 editor. Yet the significance of heterochromatic and highly repetitive sequences is being recognized more and more (at least by some) as regulatory elements, pseudogenes, and actively transcribed sequences are continually being uncovered within these once enigmatic and highly variable sequences.

Filtered through a Darwinian paradigm, many have often insisted that such sequences are nothing more than artifacts of evolutionary processes that only contribute nonspecifically to structural designations. The rhetoric of others is grossly misleading and negligent, claiming a “post-genomic era,” and repeatedly uttering that we completed the human genome more than a decade ago. Such thinking not only has hindered scientific discovery but may even threaten society with its hubris and neglect of details.

The potential good uses of CRISPR/Cas9 are exciting and promising. Cures for many diseases may lie in the not so distant future. But there is still much to be worked out and understood before we adopt widespread gene-editing as a medical treatment option. Our genome is far more complex than we understand, as anyone involved in personal genomic studies will confirm. Manipulating genomes before we know what’s there is rather cavalier, if not irresponsible, behavior.

Actions driven by desire and curiosity must be tempered by moral restraint. The Christian moral and ethical voice needs to temper that of rogue materialism and blind naturalism.

Next week I’ll look at some other ecological applications of CRISPR/Cas9 and consider our charge of stewarding creation.

  1. Although approved by the NIH RAC, the proposed therapy must also pass review at the various institutions involved in the clinical trials and receive approval by the FDA.
  2. Alice Park, “Life, The Remix,” Time, July 4, 2016, 43–48.
  3. Mark Chaisson, Richard Wilson, and Evan Eichler, “Genetic Variation and the De NovoAssembly of Human Genomes,” Nature Reviews Genetics 16 (November 2015): 627–40, doi:10.1038/nrg3933.