Germline Alteration and Defining “Just Research”

Yesterday’s post by Steve Phillips raises a central question for us in the “biotech century”:  are there some sorts of experiments that fundamentally ought not be done because of the potential they will be grossly misapplied by bad actors?  Steve cited research by Lord Robert Winston seeking to create genetically altered pigs—that seem, from the description in the press, to be what scientists call “transgenic” pigs—that carry a (relatively small) amount of human immune system DNA such that the pigs’ organs would not be recognized as foreign—and not rejected by—a human transplant recipient.  The press story states that Lord Winston worries that “countries like North Korea” could abuse the technology for “risky eugenics programmes.”

This kind of worry is not new (see: nuclear fission).  And since, as Solzhenitsyn reminded us, the “fault line” between good and evil runs through the individual human heart, we ought to fear malevolent “dual use” not only by the likes of terrorists, but also morally misguided applications by we who supposedly are enlightened.

So, the fundamental technology issue is invoked:  is every technique morally neutral, or are there some sorts of maneuvers we ought never attempt, out of “a presumption to forbear,” or some such thing?  When it assessed synthetic biology in 2010, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues faced the question, and reasonably, but perhaps a bit tentatively (not that I could be bolder) recommended a mix of “responsible stewardship” and thoughtful, publicly-debated regulation, much as exists now for attempts at gene therapy.  More recently (and I am reading the offerings much too slowly), bioethicists writing from a secular perspective express doubts that defensible limits may be placed on synthetic biology by an appeal to “the natural” as something that ought not to be tampered with.  (“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” as the old margarine ad said.)  At best, saying “hands off the natural order,” whether defined in religious, environmentalist, or, as it were, Darwinian terms, would need to be limited to “hands off human nature,” or some aspects thereof.

That there is an “untouchable” essential human nature seems intuitive to me and, I suppose, to many religious- (or not so religious, e.g., Leon Kass) conservative bioethicists, yet we must define what we are talking about.  As has been discussed in the past by another contributor to this blog, Dennis Hollinger made a noteworthy attempt in the Fall 2013 issue of Ethics & Medicine.  Rejecting the nature of medicine, aversion to eugenics, justice, and “multiple standards” as foundations for placing limits on biotechnologies, Hollinger proposed four aspects of human nature that ought never be touched:  male/female gender identity, the “ensouled” nature of the human body (i.e., attempting to separate the mind from the body), human finitude, and the one most relevant for the current discussion, the integrity or uniqueness of the human species.  With this last point, Hollinger sought to proscribe the creation (as has been attempted in the UK, which, last I looked, is not North Korea) of human/non-human hybrid embryos.  I rather favor his list, although I note that it requires a rather Aristotelian view of species, or “kinds,” of organisms—a perspective that I understand writers like Leon Kass and Robert George to adopt, but one that is not congenial to much of modern biology, and that sits uneasily with contemporary Christian thinkers, like William Hasker, who favor an “emergent” understanding of the human self over the “Thomistic essentialism” of J.P. Moreland and his devotees, like me.

Moreover, it does not seem that Hollinger would disapprove of Lord Winston’s work in principle.  Transgenic mice—with just one human gene introduced—are a commonplace in biomedical research, and transgenic pigs would seem to be incremental step, not a fundamental departure.  In any event, those of us who would adopt Hollinger’s perspective must define what we mean by inviolable human nature.  It’s not straightforward.

Another perspective that I believe is worth some thought comes from Nathan Adams’s contribution to the 2004 book, Human Dignity in the Biotech Century.  Appealing to natural law (space here does not permit addressing persistent objections to that approach to ethics), Adams attempted to define a “just research” theory, analogous to classical just war theory.  Paraphrasing, just research must have just ends, be carried out by just/proportional methods, be conducted by just means, be “declared” by a competent authority, have a reasonable chance of success, and be a last resort.   I’m not sure I would understand Adams’s theory exactly as he does, but it seems to me that, for biomedical research, “just ends” is largely determined by therapeutic intent (as opposed to other uses), “competent authority” is loaded (divine writ vs, or accompanied by, public debate?), “last resort” is eminently reasonable (if an approach is questionable, like embryonic stem cell therapy, try an alternative like somatic stem cells instead), and the other criteria are largely addressed, at least when human subjects are concerned, by the present regulatory/ethical regime of risk/benefit assessment, scientific validity, and informed consent.

There is much more to say, of course, and I am carrying on too long here.  Should Lord Winston—and we—be worried?  Of course.  Should he not do his experiments?  If I understand them correctly, I’m not so sure I would stop those.  If he’s making transgenic pigs, that might be “in bounds.”  But no one should try to create a “transgenic human,” and I would stop short of any heritable human alteration as well.  (Hence my recent posts on attempts to interdict mitochondrial disease.)  As I read the Nuffield Council, it looks like the UK is not too worried about heritable human gene (germline) alterations.  (Again, it’s 5,397 miles from London to Pyongyang.)  I think I also would rule out laboratory work to make multiple genetic alterations of multicellular organisms, or human protocells, or to define a minimal human genome.

But I’ve still got work to do to defend that.  Suggestions are welcome.

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