Editing Genes, Ethically

Scientists at England’s John Innes Centre learned how to grow plants that produce polio vaccine. That sounds like a very good idea, particularly since the process should work for other vaccines, too.

The other ‘genetic engineering’ news raises issues that can spark strong feelings: and should encourage serious thought.

Being Healthy: Within Reason

Prayer is good idea. So is getting and staying healthy. Within reason. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 15061510, 22882289, 2292)

Some Saints were sickly, but that’s not what makes them Saints. Being healthy or being sick is okay. It’s how we act that matters. (Catechism, 828, 1509, 2211, 22882291, 22922296, 2448)

Science and technology, studying this universe and using what we learn, is part of being human. It’s what we’re supposed to do. (Catechism, 22922296)

I’ll be talking about organ transplants, among other things.

Transplants are a good idea — if the benefits outweigh the risks, and someone isn’t maimed or killed in the process. (Catechism, 2296)

Thinking about Consequences

Say “genetic engineering,” and some folks may think of movies like “Splice” and “Sharktopus.” Or maybe “Gattaca” and “Morgan.”

Others might remember stern warnings about GMOs and the looming specter of unbridled science: as reported in their favorite news service.

I’ve read that “Gattaca” and “Morgan” were serious films. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” was anything but.

I like science fiction movies, and think they can be valuable: as entertainment.

I see genetic engineering as something that’s no more dangerous — or idiot-proof safe — than anything else we do.

It’s also “new” only in the sense that we’re developing new ways to tweak genetic code.

Tech like gel electrophoresis is new — genetic manipulation isn’t. Today’s cattle are the result of more than ten millennia of genetic tweaking. (October 21, 2016; July 22, 2016)

I think we need to be careful when using new technology: or tech we’ve had for millennia. What’s been changing is what can go wrong when we don’t use our brains.

The lesson from recent incidents in Fukushima and London is not that we should ban nuclear energy and stop using fire. (July 28, 2017; June 25, 2017)

It’s that using our brains makes sense: even if it means thinking about consequences beyond what we’re doing at the moment. (August 11, 2017; July 14, 2017)

“Rational Reflection”

Maybe life would be easier for Catholics if the Church said that genetic modification was evil, or that curiosity covers all wrongs.

With a little rhetorical work, and using James 5:20 out of context, ‘curiosity covers all wrongs’ might even sound ‘Biblical.’

Happily, roll-your-own theology is not part of being Catholic. (July 30, 2017)

We have a few hard and fast rules, but not many.

They’re based on even fewer very simple principles. I’m expected to love God, love my neighbor: and see everybody as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

It’s simple, and not easy.

We’re told that God made us “in the divine image.” We are rational creatures, able to think and decide how we act. God gives us brains. Using them is a good idea. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 355, 1730, 1778, 21122114, 22922295)

What St. John Paul II called “rational reflection” may not be easy.1 But I think it makes sense. Particularly when we’re dealing with new circumstances. (October 7, 2016)

1. Vaccines Grown to Order

(From John Innes Centre, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“A close relative of tobacco has been turned into a polio vaccine ‘factory'”
(BBC News))

Plants ‘hijacked’ to make polio vaccine
James Gallagher, BBC News (August 15, 2017)

Plants have been ‘hijacked’ to make polio vaccine in a breakthrough with the potential to transform vaccine manufacture, say scientists.

“The team at the John Innes Centre, in Norfolk, says the process is cheap, easy and quick.

“As well as helping eliminate polio, the scientists believe their approach could help the world react to unexpected threats such as Zika virus or Ebola….”

“Quick” is a relative term. This technique won’t provide ‘next-day’ service for newly-discovered viruses.

But it’s faster than what we’ve got. Vaccines for new flu strains take months to be ready. They’re grown in chicken eggs.2

These folks tested their technique with a Canadian company. They found that they could identify a new virus and have a vaccine ready in three to four weeks.

The vaccine these plants produce doesn’t use live viruses or dead viruses. They’re more like empty viruses.

Influenza: A Digression

“Flu” isn’t always influenza. “24-hour flu” is often gastroenteritis, ‘food poisoning,’ caused by a whole mess of viruses, bacteria and — sometimes — toxins.

Scientists thought they might have spotted a bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae, that causes influenza in 1892.

What folks get from H. influenzae is still called “bacterial influenza” sometimes, but it’s not the same disease. Diseases, actually.

We spotted a virus that causes influenza in 1933. We knew for sure that it was a virus in 1935, after studying tobacco mosaic virus. Tobacco mosaic virus gets listed as the first virus discovered, since it’s the first that scientists realized was what we call a virus.

I’m not sure whether viruses are critters, living things, or not. The last I heard, scientists are still working toward a consensus on that question. I’ve seen viruses called “biological entities.” That’s accurate, and will do for now.

A virus is a bit of nucleic acid in a protein shell. Some add a lipid envelope, using material from the host cell’s membrane.

By themselves, viruses don’t do much apart from attach to cells. Once attached, the protein coat injects its nucleic acid into the host cell, where the nucleic acid’s code ‘hacks’ the cell’s molecular processes to make more viruses.

In 1951, scientists studying diphtheria found viruses carrying a gene from one bacterium to another. In 1984, Harvard’s Michael Syvanen showed that viruses carrying genes between species might be affecting evolution.

It’s called horizontal gene transfer these days, one of many things we have a great deal left to learn about.

Orthomyxoviridae, the “influenza virus,” isn’t just one sort of virus. It’s a lot of different viruses that cause influenza in critters, including humans. Viruses evolve fast, which is one reason I get an updated flu shot every fall.

‘Empty Viruses’

(From St. Louis Post Dispatch, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Etzel and Page Avenues, St. Louis, Missouri, in 1918: another case of the flu.)

Many or most of today’s polio vaccines use “inactivated” viruses. They use viruses that are still “alive,” but weakened to the point where they don’t do much besides show the body’s immune system what polio ‘looks’ like.

Like doing anything else, there’s a slight risk involved with vaccines.

But getting immunized makes more sense than risking polio. My opinion.

The disease doesn’t always kill.

Some folks recover completely, others are merely crippled, some spent the rest of their lives in iron lungs. Living with a withered leg is manageable, and so is life in an iron lung. The latter is pricey, though, and — sedentary. (August 21, 2016)

My guess is that someone has a better chance of winning the Power Ball lottery than having a bad reaction to polio vaccines. Like I said, it’s a reasonable risk.

The favorable benefit-risk ratio didn’t keep anti-communist enthusiasts from playing up fears of fluoridation, vaccines, and mental health in the 1950s. Also, apparently, zombies. They weren’t the first, or the last, folks getting conniptions over vaccines. (July 21, 2017)

Or pretty much anything new. (March 26, 2017; October 16, 2016; August 21, 2016)

Inexpensive, Fast, Safe: Not a Bad Idea

(From St. Louis Post Dispatch, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“A = VLPs in vitreous ice. B = Reconstruction of poliovirus. C = VLP showing empty internal surface. D and E = Resolutions of poliovirus”
(John Innes Centre))

The John Innes Centre’s team started with genetic code that polio viruses use to build their protein shell. Think of it as the box viruses come in.

They combined that code with instructions from viruses that normally infect plants.

The combined code went into soil bacteria, which ‘infected’ the test plants. After the plants were ‘infected,’ scientists found polio-virus-shaped protein shells in the leaves: with no genetic code inside.

The vaccine they made from the empty shells wasn’t even a ‘dead virus’ vaccine.

All the shells did in vaccinated animals was alert their immune systems to what a polio virus ‘looks’ like. And sure enough: the critters were immune to polio after that.

The World Health Organization supported this research. Since WHO is a UN agency, I’m pretty sure some folks will assume the research is some sort of plot. (July 21, 2017)

Me? I think it looks very promising. Particularly since the technology can apparently be used to produce vaccines for most if not all viral diseases. Inexpensively, swiftly, safely, and effectively.3

This is not a bad thing.

2. Mutant Pigs

(From eGenesis, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

GM pigs take step to being organ donors
James Gallagher, BBC News (August 11, 2017)

The most genetically modified animals in existence have been created to help end a shortage of organs for transplant, say US researchers.

“The scientists successfully rid 37 pigs of viruses hiding in their DNA, overcoming one of the big barriers to transplanting pig organs to people.

“The team at eGenesis admits preventing pig organs from being rejected by the human body remains a huge challenge …”

The five-dollar word for what these scientists have in mind is xenotransplantation: transplanting organs from a donor of one species into a recipient of another.

Since quite a few folks are squeamish about killing people for their parts, and think that pigs are not people, this seems like a reasonable solution to the organ shortage.

One problem, so far, has been that xenotransplantation isn’t even close to being safe and practical. Not yet.4

Editing viruses out of porcine DNA is a big step in that direction. But it’s just one step.

One of the many issues still needing work is the excellent job our immune systems do.

Our immune system is generally very effective at locating and killing microbes. Some microbes, and that’s another topic.

The problem is that we don’t know how to tell our immune system that a particular piece of foreign tissue is supposed to be there.

We can, however, shut down the entire immune system: which creates its own problems.

Assuming that technical issues get sorted out, I think developing organ-donation-safe pigs is a good idea. Assuming, of course, that the pigs are not mistreated. (November 18, 2016)

In the long run, I think the ‘spare parts’ issue may be solved by coaxing our bodies into growing replacement organs. There’s been some promising research along those lines. It’s still in the ‘lab mice’ state, so far. (February 24, 2017)

Organ Transplants, Law, and Flexible Ethics

Organ and tissue transplants go back at least to Sushruta’s skin graft.

It’s mentioned in the “Sushruta Samhita,” “Compendium of Suśruta,” a medical text written by Sushruta; and almost certainly expanded by others.

There’s debate about whether that was about 26 centuries back, or maybe a bit over two millennia. Either way, it’s a long time ago.

More recently, transplants and related medical technology has gone from skin grafts and entertaining nonsense like “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die” to current legal and technical hurdles.

Emil Theodor Kocher did a human thyroid transplant in 1883. Work by Peter Medawar and others in the 1940s and 50s identified the immune responses that usually killed transplant patients.

Christiaan Barnard’s successful human-to-human heart transplant was in 1967. I hope he waited until the donor was actually dead. (November 11, 2016)

In 1972, researchers at Sandoz developed ciclosporin, the first immunosuppressive strong enough to keep transplant patients alive. Sandoz became part of Novartis after a corporate merger, and that’s yet another topic.

The good news is that we can transplant organs from one human to another, and keep at least one of them alive. The not-so-good news is that we don’t have enough spare hearts, kidneys, lungs, and other organs, to go around.

Complicating matters, there’s a plethora of legal and social standards for organ transplants. Some folks have religious objections, too — and it’s not just ‘back to the old days’ Christians.5

Some objections may reflect a distaste for anything new. Others seem more reasonable. Moldova, for example, restricted international adoption after learning what happened to some of the kids. The country’s rulers apparently didn’t want them broken down for parts.

Other nations exhibit more flexible ethics.

China outlawed the sale of organs in 2006. But not organ donation. Many criminals voluntarily donate their organs before they’re executed. Apparently. China executes quite a few criminals, so there’s a fairly steady supply.

I think flexibility can be a good idea. Sometimes. But not always. The trick is recognizing the difference between positive and natural law. (February 5, 2017; November 21, 2016)

3. Genetic Engineering and Questions

(From OHSU, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Pictures of the genetically modified embryos”
(BBC News))

Human embryos edited to stop disease
James Gallagher, BBC News (August 2, 2017)

Scientists have, for the first time, successfully freed embryos of a piece of faulty DNA that causes deadly heart disease to run in families.

“It potentially opens the door to preventing 10,000 disorders that are passed down the generations.

“The US and South Korean team allowed the embryos to develop for five days before stopping the experiment.

“The study hints at the future of medicine, but also provokes deep questions about what is morally right….”

I had hoped that I would read about an experimental medical procedure intended to heal the patient. That’s not what happened.

Apparently the “deep questions about what is morally right” focus on wondering if correcting a genetic disorders is okay: if succeeding generations also benefited.

My own view is that worrying about whether healing a person is okay, if the person’s children may be healthy as a result, seems silly. At best.

It’s not that simple, though.

Again, healing an individual is a good idea.

We’re told that gene therapy is okay: in principle. Gene therapy that will affect later generations may be okay. But not if healing today’s individual would harm the patient’s descendants. (“Instruction Dignitas Personae,” 24-27 (September 8, 2008))

That doesn’t mean that gene therapy is bad.

If we learn that we can cure diseases in today’s children, and that their descendants will be fine: that’s good.

If it’s a case of curing today’s kid and crippling the next generation: not so much.

Health and Old Ideas

Some of today’s ambivalence about healing the sick may be fallout from the days when some brands of Christianity sold the notion that God enjoys smiting sinners.

Judging by the Great Awakening’s success, it was effective marketing. Long-term effects on my culture: that, I’m not thrilled over. (March 5, 2017; August 21, 2016)

As I said earlier, being healthy is okay. Getting healthy is okay. Helping someone get healthy is okay.

Making good health the sole focus of my life, more important than anything or anyone else: that would not be okay. (Catechism, 21122114)

I should also avoid doing something that’s a bad idea, even if my motive is to help myself or someone I care about. (Catechism, 1789, 2296)

The Francis Crick Institute’s Professor Robin Lovell-Badge expressed another concern:

“…’The possibility of producing designer babies, which is unjustified in any case, is now even further away.'”
(James Gallagher, BBC News)

“Unjustified in any case” is a rather firm statement. I suspect we haven’t entirely forgotten what happened when eugenic standards were enforced. (August 14, 2016)

Frankenfish Fears and Using my Brain

(From BBC, used w/o permission.)

My guess is that some folks will slap the “Satanic” label on this research. I won’t.

I think Satan is real, and that killing human test subjects is a bad idea.

But I also think far too many folks have said “Satanic” when they meant “I don’t like it” or “it’s different.” (May 5, 2017; February 5, 2017; November 13, 2016)

Folks with a less traditionally-religious bent will most likely disapprove because the scientists are altering genetic code — which, apparently, is just simply fraught with peril.

The last I heard, we’re still supposed to be scared of GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms. They’re new. They’re modified. They’re alive!!! (Muahahaha!)

I don’t share those fears, partly because I know that few if any of today’s crops or livestock aren’t genetically modified.

But we’ve survived macaroni wheat and chickens. I figure we’ll get over fears of “Frankenfish” as soon as another boogeyman shows up. (June 9, 2017; March 31, 2017; July 22, 2016)

There are reasons for caution while using new genetic engineering tech.

Any technology is dangerous if we don’t use our brains: even fire, something we’ve used for well upwards of a million years. (July 28, 2017)

‘It’s for science’ doesn’t make hurting or killing innocent folks okay. (Catechism, 2294)

Ethics matter, no matter what we’re doing.

A Basically Good Motive

I think these scientists had basically good motives. The inherited disorders they’re studying can be lethal.

They focused on MYBPC genes. In healthy folks, some of those genes help our bodies suppress tumors, others keep our hearts beating. When the genes don’t work, the result can be breast cancer or HCM.

HCM is short for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It’s one of the main reasons we occasionally read about healthy high school athletes who drop dead.

Defective MYBPC genes only account for about 5% to 10% of all breast cancer cases, and most of us don’t die in our teens. Humanity’s survival doesn’t hinge on this research. But MYBPC genes seem like a good place to start learning about some aspects of gene therapy.

The good news is that the scientists learned a great deal. They also learned that although they could fix MYBPC genes, the technique isn’t practical. One of the donors/parents would have to be healthy, for one thing.6

The bad news, from my viewpoint, is that the 131 human test subjects did not survive the experiment. After waiting five days to make sure their repaired genes were working properly, the subjects were allowed to die. Or maybe killed. I’m not sure which.

Learning: Slowly

This isn’t a Tuskegee scenario.

Researchers filled out all the necessary paperwork. Their study was quite legal.

My guess, and hope, is that they didn’t think the folks they used were people.

I don’t doubt that we have learned a great deal from their work, and that folks will benefit from that knowledge.

But I also think that killing 131 innocent people is not a good idea. Even if they are not, legally, persons. In this case, the test subjects were young enough to be called “embryos.”

Technically, they may not have been “killed.” The easiest way to ensure their death would have been to take them from the environment they needed to remain alive.

I think the ‘viability’ argument might excuse their termination, by current American standards. I don’t see it that way. That’s partly because I don’t see providing nutrition and shelter to a helpless person as “extraordinary” care. (Catechism, 22782279)

I willingly accepted that part of Catholic belief, perhaps because I’ve lived in the upper Midwest for most of my life.

Around here, no human is “viable” during winter. Not without clothing, fire, or the more sophisticated tech we’ve developed. We’ll last longer if we’re strong and healthy to start with, keep moving, and that’s yet again another topic.

Seeing all human beings as people, no matter what we look like, where we were born, or how healthy we are, can be inconvenient: even awkward. But I think it is a good idea. (Catechism, 2258, 22662267, 22682279, 22922295)

I also think we may be learning: slowly. One researcher involved with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment quit after learning that treatment for some of the subjects was not planned, and that the subjects would not be informed.

Several decades later, some Americans who weren’t working for the national government learned what had been happening. That was in 1972.

America had been going through a very rapid series of social and cultural changes. Many of us realized that lying to non-whites was a bad idea. So was subjecting them to lethal infections.

Many of those changes were, I think, reforms that had been in progress for many generations. And are far from finished.7

Still Learning

(From New York Public Library, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The Willowbrook experiments didn’t last as long as the Tuskegee research. They started in the 1960s. In that case, disabled kids at a state housing facility were getting hepatitis. Folks running the place didn’t know why.

So they deliberately infected 60 of the healthy ones. About 6,000 disabled folks were packed into quarters designed for 4,000 by then. Only about 1% of the available test subjects were actually harmed.

A remarkable number of Americans thought it was a bad idea, anyway. I agree.

Research that knowingly endangers someone’s life, health, or sanity, isn’t right. Even if the subject says it’s okay. (Catechism, 2295)

Public criticism of Willowbrook started in the 1970s, too. Like I said: I think we are learning. And we have much more to learn:

1 Thinking about life and Catholic social teachings:

2 Viruses, mostly:

3 Polio:

4 Organ transplants:

5 More about organ transplants:

6 Genetic engineering:

7 Curing social ills takes time and persistence:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Editing Genes, Ethically

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Incorrect article: “virus and have an vaccine ready in three to four weeks.”

    Incorrect word: “I think developing organ-donation-safe pigs as a good idea.”

    This one’s a bit of a mess: “Apparently the “deep questions about what is morally right” focus on correcting a genetic disorders was okay:”

    Wrong word: “One researcher involved with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment quite after learning”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!