Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Christian bioethics lecturer 'disturbed' by new DNA surgery

Thu 28 Sep 2017
By Eno Adeogun

A Christian bioethics lecturer has told Premier he is "disturbed" by the DNA surgery Chinese researchers have performed on human embryos to remove a disease using a technique they claim has never been used.

Scientists from Sun Yat-sen University told the BBC they used base editing to correct the genetic code of lab-made embryos to remove the disease beta-thalassemia.

The team said their technique may one day treat a range of inherited diseases.

Dr Trevor Stammers, Bioethics lecturer at St Mary's University in Twickenham, told Premier that this was not a case where the ends justify the means.

He said: "What concerns me and actually quite a number of bio-ethicists and those who are looking and researching in this field is that what we here have is scientists who are deliberately creating human life - deliberately creating embryos, these are not embryos that have been left over as spares from fertility treatments from IVF.

"They've been specifically created to be experimented upon and then destroyed, which is why there are no children who were cured that the Chinese are bringing out. It's just a proof of principle and it's been gained in a way that many people would regard as being unethical."

Base editing alters the fundamental building blocks of DNA - the four bases adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, which are also known by their respective letters - A, C, G and T.

The potentially life-threatening blood disorder beta-thalassemia is a blood disorder that reduces the production of hemoglobin - the iron-containing protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to cells throughout the body.

Affected individuals are at an increased risk of developing abnormal blood clots, have a shortage of red blood cells (anemia), which can cause pale skin, weakness, fatigue, and more serious complications.

The team in China edited back the single base in the genetic code - known as a point mutation that causes the disease.

Dr Stammers said that there is a way for DNA testing to be done that Christians shouldn't be concerned about but this DNA surgery was a matter for concern.

He said: "It's interesting that they have been using the words 'chemical surgery' because the use of ordinary surgery in adults, most Christians would rightly not have any qualms about that playing God. And similar techniques to this one have already been used in treating children with leukaemia successfully.

"Where the purpose is truly to heal and cure a person of a disease, that is one thing and it seems to me to be quite legitimate and in accordance with the purpose of medicine. It's when the end result - and you know from the beginning the end result is going to be you destroying that which you're claiming to heal - that I have problems with it."

He also questioned how ground-breaking the results are adding: "I think that it's very disturbing we would only know if the disease had been cured in these embryos if they had been implanted and allowed to develop into children.

"As it is, we don't know that."

Listen to Dr Trevor Stammers speaking with Premier's Eno Adeogun:

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