"THE MEMORY OF JESUS IS BOTH SACRED AND SUBVERSIVE"
Saturday, 5 August 2017
EMBRYO RESEARCH AND MORALITY
Church objects to latest embryo research
The complexity of many disorders means the latest breakthrough cannot be used for many disorders
The Irish Times
Patsy McGarry Religious Affairs Correspondent
The Catholic Church in Ireland has voiced its total opposition to the use of embryos in research following a breakthrough study by scientists who “edited” human genomes to remove mutations linked to heart failure.
Scientists believe such “editing” could also work for other conditions caused by single gene mutations such as cystic fibrosis and some breast cancers.
None of the research so far has involved the birth of babies from the modified embryos.
However, Bishop Kevin Doran, chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Consultative Group on Bioethics and Life Questions, said – as part of the research – human embryos were “being deliberately generated under laboratory conditions with a higher than average risk of congenital heart disease”.
They were being “deprived of any other purpose than to be used for research and then disposed of”, he told The Irish Times. “These individual human beings are all the more entitled to protection precisely because they do not yet have the capacity to speak for themselves or to give their consent.”
His comments come as an Irish expert on genetic law warned that Ireland had no concrete legal framework to deal with these issues, and was effectively operating in a regulatory vacuum.
Dr Aisling de Paor, a law lecturer in Dublin City University, said the new research was a “game-changer” in scientific and ethical terms but Ireland was ill-prepared to deal with its implications.
Setting out the church’s stance, Bishop Doran said: “Medical intervention on human embryos should only be permitted if it is designed to protect the life and health of the specific embryo being treated.”
This position is contained in the bishops’ submission to the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction in 2003.
More recently, in its New Charter for Healthcare Workers, the Vatican said it was “gravely immoral to sacrifice a human life for therapeutic ends”, the bishop said.
That charter stated: “To create embryos with the intention of destroying them, even with the intention of helping the sick, is completely incompatible with human dignity, because it makes the existence of a human being at the embryonic stage nothing more than a means to be used and destroyed.”
This, Bishop Doran said, reflected “the consistent belief of the church that ‘a human embryo has, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person’.”
Research published in the scientific journal Nature has, for the first time, shown how editing genes in human embryos can repair a disease-causing mutation and produce apparently healthy embryos. Although it is a long way from clinical use, it raises the possibility that gene editing, in the future, may protect babies from hereditary conditions.
What is a gene mutation?
A gene mutation is a permanent alteration in the DNA sequence that makes up a gene. Mutations range in size; they can affect anything from a single DNA building block to a large segment of a chromosome that includes multiple genes.
There are two types of gene mutation: hereditary mutations, which are inherited from a parent and are present throughout a person’s life in virtually every cell in the body; and acquired mutations, which occur at some time during a person’s life and are present only in certain cells. These changes can be caused by environmental factors or can occur if a mistake is made as DNA copies itself during cell division.
What disease did the researchers focus on?
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which affects the muscles in the heart, occurs in about one in 500 people. It leads to heart failure and has been implicated in some cases of sudden adult death. It is caused by a mutation in a gene called MYBPC3.
What did they do?
Using sperm from a man with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and eggs from 12 healthy women, the researchers created fertilised eggs. They injected Crispr-Cas9, which works as a genetic scissors, to cut out the mutated DNA sequence on the male MYBPC3 gene. Next they injected a synthetic healthy DNA sequence into the fertilised egg. The male gene then copied the healthy sequence from the female gene, thereby eliminating the mutation that would otherwise have caused the heart-muscle problem to develop.
Will the new treatment work for other diseases?
Yes, but it will not be of use in all diseases.
Most are caused by multiple factors – often a combination of genetic factors, the environment, lifestyle and infection. The new technique may work in disorders caused by mutations in a single gene, for example sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis.
But common medical problems such as heart disease and diabetes do not have a single genetic cause: they are associated with the effects of multiple genes in combination with lifestyle and environmental factors.
And although complex disorders often cluster in families, they do not have a clear-cut pattern of inheritance. This means the latest gene-editing breakthrough cannot be used to treat many common diseases.
Are there ethical or legal issues surrounding this treatment?
Critics of the Crispr technology have argued that gene editing could lead to eugenics and to the production of embryos with certain features, in order to develop so-called designer babies.
Gene editing has yet to be shown to be completely safe in people; there are concerns it may affect future generations in unexpected ways.
The technique already faces substantial regulatory hurdles. The United States Congress has barred the US Food and Drug Administration from even considering human trials with edited embryos.
Earlier this year a US National Academy of Sciences committee endorsed modifying embryos, but only to correct mutations that cause “a serious disease or condition” and when no “reasonable alternatives” exist.
In the UK it is illegal to implant genetically modified embryos in women.
PAT SAYS: All the moral questions that surround embryo research should be important to all of whether or not we are believers. On the one hand you have the spectre of Hitler's perfect race - and on the other hand, you have the possibility of preventing millions and millions of people being born with and suffering from horrible diseases. I would not take the likes of KEVIN DORAN too seriously. During the equal marriage referendum in Ireland, he said that being gay was like having Down's Syndrome! That's how much he knows about science. But there are very important moral and ethical issues involved. Is it morally permissible to create a human embryo purely for research purposes and then destroy it when the lab is finished with it? Involved in this question, of course, are those two other questions: "When does an embryo became a person" and "When does an embryo have a soul"? As a Christian and a human being, I am very worried about using human embryos for research. But then is it ok for use a small number of embryos to save or improve millions of lives. These are very tough corners in morality and ethics. Is is a case of "Better for one man to die for the people"? It would be less of a problem for me if we could establish that embryos were not "persons" or did not have souls until a certain stage. Thue use of "pre-personed" or "pre-soul" embryos would be less problematic for me.
I'm not sure the debate is helped by black and white absolutes. The Roman Catholic Church is coming down with black and white absolutes. This whole issue needs more debate. We need to hear more about it from a wide range of experts on morality and ethics. I suppose we Christians must ask ourselves "What does God think"? We will find some answers to that question in our Scriptures, in listening to many experts, in reading, in thinking, in praying, in listening to people with horrible diseases etc. I, for one, with not be paying any attention to a man who thinks that being gay is like having Downs Syndrome!
Pointlessness of worry
The worried cow would have lived till now
If she only saved her breath:
But she feared her hay wouldn't last all day,
And she mooed herself to death.