Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Genetically Altered Embryo" Not as Big a Deal as Advertised

The story of the first supposedly genetically altered human embryo is making headlines around the world. From the story:

The study appears to be the first report of genetically modifying a human embryo. It was presented last fall at a meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, but didn't draw widespread public attention then. The result was reported over the weekend by The Sunday Times of London, which said British authorities highlighted the work in a recent report.

Rosenwaks and colleagues did the work with an embryo that had extra chromosomes, making it nonviable. Following a standard procedure used in animals, they inserted a gene that acts as a marker that can be easily followed over time. The embryo cells took up the gene, he said.

The goal was to see if a gene introduced into an abnormal embryo could be traced in stem cells that are harvested from the embryo, he said. Such work could help shed light on why abnormal embryos fail to develop, he said. No stem cells were recovered from the human embryo, said Rosenwaks, noting that abnormal embryos frequently don't develop well enough to produce them.
In my view, this isn't quite as big a deal as reporters are making out. First, the embryo was never viable in the first place because it was genetically defective. Nor was it created for the purpose of destroying it--which is the agenda of cloning research, the essential technology for learning how to genetically engineer the human race. Moreover, animal work has already demonstrated that mammalian life can be genetically altered.

Don't get me wrong: I don't like it. I oppose treating human life, even if it is ultimately nonviable, as a mere instrumentality. But it doesn't really move the ball toward human genetic enhancement forward. To do that, as I noted, will require massive quantities of cloned embryos to learn how the genes express, why, and their mutual interrelationships--a monumental task given the sheer complexity of human development.

But this quote from a defender is, overall, hokum:

But an author of the study says the work was focused on stem cells. He notes that the researchers used an abnormal embryo that could never have developed into a baby anyway. "None of us wants to make designer babies," said Dr. Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
He should speak for himself. There are plenty of people biting at the bit to genetically engineer embryos, and a cadre of bioethicists and lawyers already laying down the intellectual foundation to create a constitutional right to do it. If human cloning can ever be done reliably--a big if--an increasing number of advocates and media will urge the right to genetically engineer, first for health and later for enhancement, based on a supposed absolute right to procreate and to create the baby you want. That is the trajectory they are on, and all you have to do is read the books and bioethics articles already in print to verify it.

But that's okay. Nobody died and made them monarchs. There are plenty of us with the energetic intent to short circuit their plans.



At May 13, 2008 , Blogger John Howard said...

What is the plan to short circuit their plans?

At May 13, 2008 , Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

Outlaw human cloning. Outlaw the buying and selling of eggs. Prevent any implantation of any embryo not created by fertilization. Prevent fetal farming (partly accomplished at the federal level), promote ethical biotechnologies, in other words, float like a butterfly and sting like a bee wherever and whenever possible.

At May 13, 2008 , Blogger John Howard said...

Sounds good, but what about embryos created by fertilization using genetically modified gametes? And would we make sure that human cloning is not defined as creating a person that is "identical" to a previously existing person, as it is often defined?

At May 13, 2008 , Blogger D.J. said...

I certainly agree the media may be hyping this up a little bit, particularly after the British HFEA got wind of Rosenwak's talk. Actually, the talk itself, as presented at the ASRM meeting, would be more appropriately categorized as an example of "gene therapy." I assume it was a simple green fluorescent protein insertion by a viral vector and subsequent monitoring for fluorescence - rather routine research with techniques used on animal models for quite some time, perhaps accounting for the lack of scientific buzz until now. It is important to note there is no published record of Rosenwak's data on this research (that I could find). Forthcoming, perhaps, but may not be noteworthy of publication in itself.

For an example of how much further along scientists are with genetic modification of embryos (non human), I suggest the following Gene Therapy paper to readers:


As for actual issues in genetic modification of embryos or cloning (human) that may be of greater significance and interest to readers, I suggest the work done by Stemagen as published in Stem Cells:

Proof of principle human cloning is laid out in said paper.

Perhaps the media may be more substantially lagging behind science than the public realizes...

At May 14, 2008 , Blogger John Howard said...

Wesley, how are you so confident that banning cloning and embryos not-created-by-fertilization will stop human genetic enhancement? All it does is require them to genetically enhance the gametes, which is probably how most people would want to do it anyhow (that way they can still pretend that they are the mother and father, and also the government can still obligate them to pay child support and feed and clothe the lab's shiny genetically enhanced people). No one really wants to create cloned children, they just want genetically enhanced children.

Why leave such a huge loophole open? Is there a downside to advocating for a ban on modified gametes too?

At May 14, 2008 , Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

Well, that is worth pondering.

At May 15, 2008 , Blogger Dark Swan said...

What is the plan to short circuit their plans?

May 13, 2008
Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

Outlaw human cloning.

How did that approach work out for Bartle and Lembke in Missouri? Oh it had the opposite effect and got a state amendment passed to protect scientists from people who think like you do...

What do you think Obama is going to when he becomes President, I bet he changes the Bush policy to one more favorable to scientists.

At May 15, 2008 , Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

If he is elected he will change the ESC funding policy, which won't bring much more money in anyway. But the issue is cloning DS. Focus.

At May 16, 2008 , Blogger Dark Swan said...

Umm the Bartle and Lembke issue spawned the largest cloning debate the country has seen on a state level. Id say thats pretty on focus.

Keep up with your readers!


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