New method for genetic modification – genetic alteration of sperm

Germline genetic modification is a technique that some find intriguing and many find very concerning when its use is considered in humans. However there are uses of germline genetic modifications in animals that may impact humans in multiple ways. In an article in The Telegraph, British researcher Robert Winston talks about current research to develop animal organs (usually from pigs) that could be genetically modified to be acceptable to human immune systems and not be rejected. This has been done in animal models by genetically altering pigs so that a pig heart is not rejected when transplanted into a baboon. One of the problems with such genetic modification is that it requires the use of IVF and the genetic modification of the produced embryo which is a very difficult and inefficient procedure.

In an attempt to find a way to do this type of genetic modification more efficiently Winston has developed a process in mice by which the DNA of sperm can be altered and then the sperm used to artificially inseminate a mouse to produce genetically altered mice. Theoretically this technique would be an easier way to produce genetically modified pigs whose organs could then be used for transplant.

Several ethical issues arise from this. One is whether the goal of producing animals with organs that can be transplanted into humans is something we ought to do. Winston seems to think that this is an acceptable goal and is the stimulus to his research. His primary ethical concern is that the technique he is developing for use on animals could be used with people. Genetic alteration of sperm might be a relatively simple way to introduce genetic enhancements into human beings. Although he was not intending that use in developing this technique he has concerns about its use to genetically alter humans. There are significant concerns about the safety and permissibility of doing human germline modification and he feels those concerns would keep this technique from being used in humans in places such as Great Britain, but is concerned that there are some places and cultures (he mentions North Korea) where ethical concerns would not prevent attempts to do human germline enhancement.

This raises an interesting question. Should a researcher who is worried that a technique that is being developed for what he thinks is a good purpose be pursued when he recognizes a serious concern that the technique could be misused in ways that are wrong?

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Christian Vercler
Christian Vercler
6 years ago

Certainly vegans and animal liberation folks would oppose the use of animal products for human benefit and have a consistent argument, but we already use porcine heart valves, porcine dermis, shark cartilage, (the list goes on) in surgical procedures all the time without too much moral distress, so it makes sense that Winston wouldn’t question too much the logical extension of working towards tolerance of more complicated xenotransplants.

Is it naive to think that any technique or technological advance could be free from misuse? From a theological anthropological view, I wonder if there is any human enterprise that is “all good?” I want to guard us against Pelagianism when it comes to any advance that we make in medicine. None is spotless. But I don’t think that means that all scientific inquiry should be brought to a halt. Whether or not advances like these do more harm than good depend upon the person using them. The researcher should obviously do what she or he can to ensure adequate regulations, etc. but “potential for misuse” is inescapable.