Chinese alter genetics of human embryo

Scientific community: "we feel some urgency"
A human embryo that has begun to implant in the uterus. (Egress Nikos/Welcomme Images via Welcome Images/Flickr)

A human embryo that has begun to implant in the uterus. (YorgosNikos/Welcomme Images via Welcome Images/Flickr)

The following comes from an April 24 Science magazine article by Jocelyn Kaiser and Dennis Normile:

The announcement that a Chinese team had altered the genetics of a human embryo for the first time has ignited a firestorm of controversy around the world and renewed recent calls for a moratorium on any attempt to establish a pregnancy with such an engineered embryo.

But it has also underscored the fact that although scientists are united in their opposition to any clinical application of such embryo manipulation, they are split on the value of basic research that involves genetically modifying human embryos.

In China itself, where the precedent-setting research is big news and some in the public have expressed concern on the Internet about the embryo experiments, “most scientists are more positive,” says Guo-Qiang Chen, a microbiologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “My personal opinion is that as long as they can control the consequences they should continue this work.”

Eight weeks in the womb (WebMD)

Eight weeks in the womb (WebMD)

The paper at the heart of the debate, published online on 18 April in Protein & Cell, an obscure Chinese journal published by an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Education, drew widespread attention only after Nature News reported it online on 22 April. Junjiu Huang and colleagues at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou described how they attempted to use the CRISPR/Cas-9 system, a new technology that makes it easy to modify genes in cells, to edit the hemoglobin-B gene (HBB) in 86 human embryos donated for research by couples at an in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic. In theory, this could be a way to prevent beta thalassemia, a blood disorder that results when that gene is mutated, but the embryos experimented on were selected because they were not viable; they had an extra set of chromosomes as a result of being fertilized by two sperm.

The performance of the technique proved so poor that the researchers emphasized that any clinical use of CRISPR/Cas9 for embryo editing is “premature at this stage.” The project was reviewed by Huang’s university’s ethics board and complied with international and national ethical standards, according to the paper. The researchers used abnormal zygotes that would otherwise be discarded, “because ethical concerns preclude studies of gene editing in normal embryos,” they write.

Rumors that such a paper was in the works sparked several published opinion pieces a month ago. In a commentary in Science, molecular biologist David Baltimore, president emeritus of California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and 17 co-authors called for scientists and others to “strongly discourage … attempts at germline genome modification for clinical application in humans.” (Many countries already ban or discourage germline gene modification.)

Several scientists led by Edward Lanphier, CEO of Sangamo BioSciences in Richmond, California, went further in a Nature commentary, calling for a voluntary moratorium on all experiments involving germline gene modification.

Regardless of where scientists stand on this new research, it has highlighted their shared desire to discuss whether, if ever, gene editing should be used in human embryos to prevent disease. University of California, Berkeley, molecular biologist Jennifer Doudna is now helping to organize an international meeting later this year to come up with guidelines. “I think the goal of that meeting is to come together and identify a broader consensus about the appropriate way to proceed with these experiments,” she says. Now that the first human embryo gene-editing paper has been published, she adds, “we feel some urgency.”



  1. Well, certainly there are many ethical booby-traps with this practice. But, if the gene therapy were restricted to fixing defects, I don’t see how it would be unethical.

    For example, do you really wish to challenge fixing Downs syndrome or other serious congenital defects in the foreseeable future? Being able to fix such problems could significantly reduce the abortion rate for babies with congenital conditions.

    Take this hypothetical. Suppose homosexuality were to be discovered as a fixable epigenetic condition with gene therapy en utero. If the Catholic Church were to oppose such treatment, they’d be in the position of condemning homosexuality as a mortal sin, but also preventing effective treatment for the condition.

    Then the Church would then be saying that persons born with homosexual tendencies must be untreated en utero and simply must live celibate lives b/c expressing their sexuality would be immoral.

    Catholic Churches would empty if the Vatican attempted to chart a theological course that condemned gene therapy to prevent disease due to worries about designer babies.

    • One sees that humans are trying harder and harder to play God! “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Your ways are not my ways.” The harm of birth control pills, GMO, Fetal Cell grown Immunization drugs…. How far can we go?

    • CCC: ” 2376 Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral.
      These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage.
      They betray the spouses’ “right to become a father and a mother only through each other.”

      CCC: ” 2377 Techniques involving only the married couple (homologous artificial insemination and fertilization) are perhaps less reprehensible, yet remain morally unacceptable.
      They dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act.
      The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children.
      Under the moral aspect procreation is deprived of its proper perfection when it is not willed as the fruit of the conjugal act, that is to say, of the specific act of the spouses’ union . . . . Only respect for the link between the meanings of the conjugal act and respect for the unity of the human being make possible procreation in conformity with the dignity of the person.”

    • Homosexual desires are a temptation not a disease.

      Each of us has varying temptations.

      Fornication, Homosexual Acts, and Adultery are all Mortal Sins.

  2. Michael McDermott says:

    “My personal opinion is that as long as they can control the consequences they should continue this work.”

    Yeah Right – Like they did with the ‘Killer Bees’ and countless other experiments that turned in to nightmares.

    Fortunately, ‘Scientists’ are only in it for the Knowledge; and have no interest in Riches or Expensive Toys or beautiful people who would otherwise not give them the time of day were it not for their riches… So no need to worry about Greed interfering with ‘pure’ science.

    Besides – think of the fallout from Succession to the Hereditary Communist Dictatorship in North Korea – when an army of Kim Klones each threatens to blow up the world if they are not made supreme dictator, and voted sexiest man alive too.

    Oh such a brave new world – with the only question left How to Cash In on it?

  3. Tom Byrne says:

    I am a science teacher and remember when a now-discredited South Korean researcher was celebrated in magazines like Scientific American for a human cloning success later proved to have been falsified. I also learned after years living through the Cold War to distrust ANY such report emerging from a totalitarian state. I’m not worried yet because I don’t buy that it actually happened.

  4. Michael McDermott says:

    ” I’m not worried yet because I don’t buy that it actually happened.” TB

    ‘Trinity’ (the first successful uranium bomb) worked, but very few people knew about it at first – including Soviet Dictator Stalin (who had a mole as #2 in the OSS – Predecessor to the CIA) and who wanted one of his own, very much – and got it rather easily actually, from our research.

    But he was headed there anyway, as while it is true that what once took the resources of a powerful industrial state to create – can now be done with a small lab in a remote and desolate location, given the increases in computing and instrument power since the crude devices of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – provided properly enriched ‘bomb stuff’ is available – like the Iranians are making right now.

    ‘Science’ has closed many genes & genies from Pandora’s Laboratory in to this brave new world of ours – and for the Church and Faithful one of the most vexing will be whether human created constructs (made from partial or imitation human source material – of Various Origins) will have Souls?

    This does not even broach the concept of pure machine / electro / artificial ‘intelligence’ developing a Soul – supposedly at some point of alleged ‘self awareness’, as opposed to the mimicry thereof that has characterized so much of the results in the field so far.

  5. Your Fellow Catholic says:

    I have to tell you, as a geneticist, that this report troubles me.

    Keep in mind, I write as a person who has with my own hands altered the genetic material of organisms that got passed down to future generations (in yeast and bacteria).

    I haven’t a moral objection to gene therapy in the cells affected by a disease, with the consent of the treated person.

    But if this treatment involves altering what we call the “germ line”, that is to say that we make changes that affect future generations, then I have serious concerns for the morality of this procedure.

  6. Alan Neugebauer says:

    Of course it is unethical. Man I’d playing God. God created man, God created life, where does man get off thinking that he is now god? Everything and everyone exists for a specific reason. Man does not need to know all the reasons. God does not answer to us, it’s US who do and will answer to Him. Just because something might seem to be good, it does not mean it is. The consequences will NEVER be controllable. We have proved that in the past.
    As for the Catholic Church, do not presume to know what is best for the Church to do. Nor presume to know what effect anything She says or does will have on people. The Church has a duty to God to stand up for the truth, to teach the Word of God and protect souls from ending up in hell. The wisdom of the Catholic. Church is 2000 years old and no modern minded secular thinking person of today can possibly understand some truths which she is on possession of. Sadly, one reason is because people simply don’t care about the real truth. The truth today is relative. Well it is not!! The truth is UNCHANGEABLE, exactly as it is in mathematics. It may be distasteful but it’s still true. God gives and takes life. He knows very well who will eventually have homosexual tendencies. The reason he allows such a person to be born that way is His to know.

  7. They can NOT control the outcome.

  8. Linda Maria says:

    A human embryo, a child of God– must NEVER be used for mankind’s so-called “scientific research!” What are you going to do– with your “mistakes??” MORTAL SIN!!

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