Pro-life group: Use gene editing to fix disease, not make designer babies

CRISPR CAS9 gene editing complex from Streptococcus pyogenes Credit molekuul be Shutterstock CNA CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex from Streptococcus pyogenes. | molekuul_be / Shutterstock.

As scientists explore new avenues for gene editing, a pro-life group is urging caution against the temptation to use the technology to create "designer babies."

The Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI), the research branch of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, commented on the use of CRISPR, a gene editing tool, to alter the DNA of sperm cells at a lab in New York.

"Use of CRISPR to manipulate genes or remove them entirely from the human germline presents a host of scientific and ethical questions that we can't possibly answer at this time," said David Prentice, CLI's vice president and research director.

"Our focus should be on helping patients, not on designer babies," he stressed in an Aug. 28 press release.

Researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine, the biomedical research arm of Cornell University, recently began the project. The experiment hopes to fix genetic mutations that cause diseases to be inherited from a father to his children, and to examine and fix causes of male infertility.

Gianpiero Palermo, a professor of embryology at Weill Cornell Medicine, is head of the research lab where the project is underway. He told NPR that the goal is to remove abnormalities from the gene pool. He said, theoretically, this would be a "major, major benefit to society."

However, Prentice noted that there are still many unknown variables. He said there is no way to predict with certainty that gene editing will have positive results in the long run.

"Researchers describe the 'theoretical' benefits of germline editing, but theoretical is all this is. We simply don't have any ability to ascertain the long-term effects germline mutation will have on future generations who inherit a mutated gene or the lack of a gene," he said.

At the lab in New York, the first series of trials will attempt to edit the BRCA 2 gene, which is strongly connected to cancers such as breast, ovarian, or prostate.

Rob Stein, an NPR health correspondent who recently visited the lab, said the DNA of sperm is difficult to access because it is packed tightly at the head of the sperm. He said scientists are trying to zap the sperm with electricity to loosen the DNA and shuffle the CRISPR tool inside.

Stein said modifying the DNA of sperm is safer than using CRISPR to edit the genes of human embryos, which can pose complications if scientists end up "editing some and not all of the cells in any babies [they] try to make from an edited embryo."

He also acknowledged the concerns surrounding gene editing technology.

"Somebody someday could try to use the same technology to make, you know, so-called designer babies, where parents pick and choose the traits of their children. And that raises all kinds of sort of scary sci-fi scenarios about genetic haves and genetic have-nots," he said.

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