Informed Consent and Genetic Germline Engineering

By Mark McQuain

I recently read, with admittedly initial amusement, an article from The Daily Mail that described a young man of Indian decent who was intending to sue his parents for giving birth to him “without his consent.” Raphael Samuel, a 27 year-old who is originally from Mumbai, is part of a growing movement of “anti-natalists”, who claim it “is wrong to put an unwilling child through the ‘rigmarole’ of life for the pleasure of its parents.” While he claims he loves his parents and says they have a “great relationship”, he is bothered by the injustice of putting another person through the struggles of life “when they didn’t ask to exist.”

While I was amused at the absurdity of asking a non-existent entity for permission to do anything, I began to wonder whether my position against germline genetic engineering should continue to include the lack of informed consent by the progeny of the individuals whose germline we are editing.

I have made the claim on this blog previously that one of my arguments against germline genetic engineering is that it fails to obtain the permission of the future individuals directly affected by the genetic engineering. Ethical human experimentation always requires obtaining permission (informed consent) of the subject prior to the experiment. This goes beyond any legal issue as many would consider Autonomy the most important principle of Beauchamp and Childress’s “Principles of Biomedical Ethics”. Informed consent is obviously not possible for germline genetic engineering as the future subjects of the current experiment are presently non-existent at the time of the experiment. While I believe there are many other valid reasons not to experiment on the human genetic germline, should the lack of informed consent continue to be one of them?

In short, if I am amused at the absurdity of Mr. Samuel’s demand that parents first obtain their children’s permission to be conceived prior to their conception, is it not equally absurd to use the lack of informed consent by the progeny of individuals whose germline we are editing as an additional reason to argue against genetic germline engineering?

Summarizing ethical issues with heritable human gene editing

By Jon Holmlund

A brief recap of reasons why we should not pursue heritable human gene editing:

It seems unlikely that risks to immediately-treated generations can be predicted with the accuracy we currently and reasonably expect from human subject research and medical practice.

Risks to later generations, that is, to the descendants of edited people, would be incalculable, and the informed consent of those later generations would be unobtainable.

To allow heritable gene editing even in the uncommon cases of untreatable, devastating genetic illness is to place too much faith in the ability of human providence to identify, and human behavior to observe, firm boundaries on its eventual use. 

Eventual use will become unavoidably subject to a eugenic approach in which the key decision will be what sort of people do we want, what sort of people should be allowed to receive life.

There will be no end to the disagreement over what edits should be permitted, and to the vilification of those considered to have been illegitimately edited, from those who object to their existence, perceived unfair advantage, or other characteristic.

Human populations will become stratified into the “edited” and the natural, introducing deep new justice concerns.  The main issue will be not will humans be gene-edited, but what should be the social status of those who are. 

To reduce heritable human gene editing to a reliable practice requires submitting it to the paradigm of manufacturing, as in drug development, with children seen as quality-controlled products of choice, not gifts of procreation.   To develop the practice, a “translational model,” again analogous to drug development, is necessary, with human embryos serving as raw materials, and, of necessity, a large, indeterminate number created and destroyed solely for development purposes, for the benefit of other humans yet to be born, and of those who would raise them.

Quite possibly, the translational model will demand great license on the extent to which embryos and fetuses may be experimented on; to wit, longer and longer gestations, followed by abortion of later and later stage, to further verify the success of the editing process.

In the extreme situation, the degree of editing may change the human organism in ways that will create a “successor” species to homo sapiens whose nature and desirability cannot be reasonably envisioned at this time.  In the extreme situation.

Even granting that this last scenario may never really arrive in ways that fiction writers can easily imagine, the other reasons should be enough that we simply don’t move heritable gene editing forward.

National Public Radio recently reported on the gene editing of human embryos—one day old—in the laboratory, in an attempt to correct and eliminate the inherited cause of blindness, retinitis pigmentosa.  The end is laudable.  The means is not.  We should not race ahead without considering why, first.  Then, we should not move ahead, but seek alternate means to the medical ends.

Edited embryos should not be created and brought to term—certainly not now, and I would say, not ever.  To be outraged over the former but not the laboratory creation of edited embryos is insufficient.  Both are outrages, although outrage over the recently-claimed birthing of edited babies in China is real, not “faux,” as one reaction held.  Still, the authors of that reaction are correct that one’s condemnation of the China event somehow justifies the laboratory work.  It does not. One last point: The Economist carried an essay decrying the birth of the edited twins in China as a case of “ethical dumping,” the practice of carrying out human subject research that would be disallowed in the West in other, perhaps less advanced (although China is certainly not backward), nations with fewer ethical scruples.  A valid point—but not one to cloak oneself in, while trying to justify the efforts to edit humans in ways that can be passed on from generation to generation.

Cyborg Society

By Mark McQuain

A cybernetic organism, or cyborg, is an organism that is part human and part machine. My favorite TV show in the mid 1970’s was “Six Million Dollar Man”, the story of an injured test pilot who lost both of his legs, his right arm and his left eye. His doctors made him “better than he was” by replacing his injured limbs and eye with artificial parts that actually enhanced his functional ability. Technology in the 1970’s was completely inadequate to accomplish those tasks and even now still lags far behind that TV show.

Perhaps the closest that any single person has come to becoming a cyborg is Steven Mann, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Toronto who, beginning in the 1980’s, literally began attaching various computers and cameras to his body and wearing them regularly to the point where, he argued, the equipment became part of him and he felt somewhat “unplugged” if he wasn’t wearing his equipment. The early equipment was so bulky, that in retrospect, he looked frankly ridiculous. As computers advanced, it became more difficult to recognize the equipment. The following photo shows that progression.

Steven Mann

Now most of the rest of us do not imagine that we are anything like Professor Mann. But I think we are more like him than we realize. Consider this – how many of you have a sense of disconnected-ness if you can’t find your smartphone? I would argue that most of us feel “unplugged” when we are without our phones. That certainly seems to be the case with anyone younger than 30. Your calendar, to-do lists, contact information, credit cards, airline or movie tickets are all stored on your phone. In that sense, part of your identity is in your phone. My wife and I joke that our children would not regularly communicate with us absent the ability to text.

Issues of faulty child-rearing aside, my point is not just our dependence on technology, and not just the nearness and intimacy of that technology. We have become dependent upon other artificial tools and parts such as walkers, hearing aides, prosthetics, pacemakers and insulin pumps, which are not just intimate but, in some cases, actually vital. But none of those machines affects our thinking or changes how we interact with one another.

Consider two new exercise systems popular this Christmas – Peloton and the Mirror (Disclaimer – I am not encouraging another Christmas gift). Both use smartphone technology to augment the exercise experience, allowing an individual to access what appears to be unlimited options in coaches, resources and locations. Notice the ads. They seem to elegantly emphasize both virtual community and individual physical isolation. And, while this technology is not cybernetically attached to us (yet), it, like the smartphone technology upon which it is based, appears to be detaching us from one another.

From a bioethics standpoint, I wonder whether, in augmenting our reality via our cyborg progression, we aren’t also becoming isolated from that reality as we become more dependent on the very technology we use to connect with one another.

Will a cyborg society make us more or less connected within that society?

#HappyNewYear

“The Babies are the Experiment”

By Jon Holmlund

 

The Thursday, Dec 13 edition of the Wall Street Journal carries this headline:  “Doubts Arise Over Gene-Editing Claim.”  The work behind the recent report that the world’s first two gene-edited babies had been born has been publicly discussed, but the details have not yet been published for full scientific review.  Apparently scientists in the gene-editing field are reviewing the public presentation and finding it lacking:

  • Some, but not all, of the cells in the children may have been edited. One would expect changes in all of the cells, and this should be necessary for the overall stated medical goal (protection from HIV infection) to have a chance of having been met.

The edited babies may have variants of the edited gene that have not been fully studied and could have unforeseen health consequences.

The technique used to confirm the gene changes may not be sensitive enough to detect whether other, unintended and potentially undesirable gene changes had been made.

And perhaps most notably, the studies done in mice to demonstrate the feasibility of the technique, before editing the embryos that grew into the full-term babies, involve a different change in the target gene in mice than the change sought in the children. In other words, the animal studies appear not to be representative of the human situation.

This is a common problem for development of new treatments for cancer and other diseases.  Tests are initially done in animals—usually mice—to determine whether the putative new treatment appears to be working.  The animal models used never entirely reflect the human disease.  Some come closer than others.  But the way of handling that uncertainty is to define and limit the risks to people who subsequently have the new treatment tested on them in clinical trials.

In the case of the gene-edited babies, there’s really no way to limit the potential risks, at least not yet, if ever.  Ultimately, one has to strike out and make changes that could backfire for the recipient humans, or be propagated into their descendants with unpredictable effects. 

Accordingly, without good animal models, and appropriately extensive testing in them, then, as professor Sean Ryder of the University of Massachusetts Medical School is quoted as saying, “the babies are the experiment.”  Ultimately, heritable gene editing may just require a leap of biomedical faith.

We should just say, “no, we shall not.”

Gene editing for genetic enhancement

By Steve Phillips

I appreciate the prior posts by Jon Holmlund and Mark McQuain regarding the recent announcement of the birth of genetically modified twins in China. Much has been written about why this should not have been done, but something very significant has been left out of most of those responses. They have failed to mention that the scientist who created the genetically altered twins was doing a form of genetic enhancement. As I have noted before, the only real reason for anyone to do research on the genetic modification of human embryos is to enable the possibility of human genetic enhancement. The scientist involved in this situation has recognized that and directly pursued it. I suspect that his open pursuit of enhancement is one of the reasons why he has received such a negative response from those who otherwise support the permissibility of using human embryos for experimentation on germline genetic modification.

The primary argument presented for why this was wrong is that he has subjected two healthy human infants to the unknown risks of genetic modification without any corresponding medical benefit to the infants. The modification was disabling the gene that codes for a cell membrane receptor that the HIV virus commonly uses to gain entry into cells it infects. The hope was that these infants would have enhanced resistance to HIV infection, although not complete immunity to such infection. The infants themselves would not have been at increased risk for HIV without the modification, but the parents had a desire to have children with increased resistance because their father has HIV and is aware of the difficulty of living with the disease. Thus, the modification was being done to provide an enhancement desired by the parents and was not being done to infants would have otherwise suffered from a genetic disorder.

Most who support current research to develop effective techniques for human germline genetic modification take the position that the safety of doing this has not been established well enough to use the technique to create infants and that when the research does reach the point that genetically modified human infants are created it should only be in situations in which those infants would otherwise have had serious genetic disorders. They are correct that this technique is currently unsafe but fail to realize that we will probably never be able to establish the safety of this type of genetic modification, because that would require safety data from multiple generations of these infants’ offspring. The idea of restricting this technique to infants who would have been born with serious genetic disorders and the idea that this technique could be used to rid the world of these genetic disorders does not make sense. If a couple desires to have children and know that they are at risk to have a child with a serious genetic disorder and have no moral concerns about the destruction of human embryos involved in such things as genetic modification, they can pursue selection of an unaffected embryo using PGD and have no need to take on the additional risks of genetic modification. Using genetic modification to eliminate genetic diseases would require a Brave New World scenario in which all human beings are artificially conceived and natural conception is prohibited. Therefore, the only reason to pursue the genetic modification of human embryos is for the purpose of human enhancement.

Let me be clear that I agree that what the scientist has done is wrong because he has subjected these two infants to significant risk without any significant medical benefit. That is always wrong. However, the strength of the negative response from those who generally support research to develop human germline genetic modification is likely due to the fact that he has opened up to public scrutiny the real purpose of such research. He has also shown that it is not true that we can ignore ethical concerns about enhancement because we could regulate the use of genetic modification so that would not occur. Enhancement was the goal of the very first use of this technique to produce human infants.

The Genetic Singularity Point has Arrived

By Mark McQuain

November 2018 will go down as one of the most pivotal points in human history. Jon Holmlund covered the facts in his last blog entry. Regardless of what you think about the ethics of He Jiankui’s recent use of CRISPR to alter the human genomes of IVF embryos and his decision to intentionally bring those genetically altered twin girls to full term, one thing is perfectly clear – we humans are in charge now. Whether you believe in God or Nature as the Entity or Force that previously determined the arrangement of our genes, humans now sit at the adult table and will be gradually (rapidly?) making more of those genetic decisions. Like Kurzweil’s upcoming Singularity Point when computers develop sufficient artificial intelligence to design the next computer, humans have now reached the point where we can and are willing to design the next human.

The Genetic Singularity point has arrived.

While there are some scientists who are frustrated that our Institutional Review Boards and ethics committees have held us back this long, most of the rest of us are frankly stunned and uneasy that we have reached this point. But anyone who thinks our stunned uneasiness will prevent a repeat of this experiment or prevent a push to alter increasing portions of our human genome to change other genetic sequences will simply remain more frequently stunned and persistently uneasy, ethical arguments notwithstanding.

My reason for expecting this to be the case is I believe we will hear increasing demands of the form that now that we have the ability to change our genome, we have the responsibility to change our genome. In fact, it would not surprise me to see, in the not-to-distant future, insurance companies paying for the cost of IVF/CRISPR to modify your child’s genome to prevent disease/condition X to avoid paying for the later treatment of disease/condition X. Oh, you won’t be forced to do this. But, if you choose to rely on God or Nature for your baby’s genetic pattern, “we” won’t be responsible for his or her care. And, if big data can eventually be married to IVF/CRISPR to statistically improve one’s chances of having a smart/beautiful/athletic/successful baby, wouldn’t you want the same for your child? Since it will be our responsibility, how could a parent not choose to make their child the best that they could be?

This will be Gattaca writ large.

Being at the Genetic Singularity point, by definition, means we humans choose our next step. We have reached the point where we believe we are ready to select our future direction. It is up to us now to chart our own course. Our genetic trajectory is our responsibility. Our success or failure, or more broadly, our future good or bad, is finally ours to determine – really ours to assign.

So Man created mankind in his own image, in the image of Man he created them…And Man saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good…

Human limitation and ethics

By Steve Phillips

I recently read Cody Chambers’ article “The Concept of Limitation in Emil Brunner’s Ethics” in Ethics in Conversation from the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. The article is well done and you need to read it to get the full impact of what he has said. What resonated with me was the idea that being limited is a part of what it means to be human and that our limitations are essential for our relationship with God and each other. It is our limitedness that helps us see that we need both God and other people and that we were made for those relationships. This is central to ethics because it is in our relationships with God and other people that we find our understanding of what ethics is.

This understanding that we are in our nature limited beings created by an unlimited God could not be more different from the conception of human beings held by many in the culture around us. They desire to see human beings and particularly themselves as having unlimited potential and freedom with no creator at all. That desire for personal freedom dominates contemporary ethics and shows itself in all areas of bioethics.

Chambers looks at how this impacts thinking about gene editing. Those who advocate doing human germline genetic modification see it as the freedom to create a child who is made to be what the parents creating the child desire the child to be. This is usually expressed in terms of creating a child free from genetic disease, but there are simpler ways to have a child without a disease carried by the parents (including adoption). It is ultimately the desire to be free of natural human reproductive limitations and create a child we have designed and chosen. Being limited helps us to see that we need each other and must respect others, including our children, as they have been made by God. Our natural lack of control over the characteristics of our children leads to an understanding that those children are a gift from God that we should accept unconditionally. Using technology to try to take control of the creation of our children leads to creating children that will fulfill our desires and a loss of the unconditional acceptance that is the foundation of a positive parent-child relationship.

Freedom in the proper context is good. The desire for unlimited freedom leads to putting ourselves above others and ultimately controlling and subjugating others, including our children, to our desires. Proper ethics requires an understanding that our freedom is limited.

Mumbling orphans—a bit more

Mark McQuain has raised the persistent, vexing issue of the pricing of drugs for rare diseases—in the case at hand, Sarepta’s eteplirsen (Exondys 51) for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, the disease over which the late comedian Jerry Lewis lost sleep every Labor Day weekend for years.

Mark provided an excellent summary (he calls it “crude,” but it’s anything but that).  In this case, the concern is not just price for a truly rare disease, but whether the drug showed sufficient evidence that it worked for FDA to approve it.  In the absence of alternative treatments, that was the truly tempestuous issue for Sarepta.  (Recall that under the 1962 Kefauver-Harris amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act, drug manufacturers in the U.S. may not sell a drug unless the FDA finds it not only safe, but effective—a standard that generally applies worldwide.)  It’s one thing for a drug to have a high price, but rather another if it doesn’t work, or doesn’t work very well.  (I decline to comment publicly about the Sarepta data; outside my expertise.  Those seeking a case in point may wish to consider Avastin for breast cancer.)

And to be sure the high price concern dogs other treatments that appear to work quite well—such as high-profile ones for cystic fibrosis or for cancer.  A case can be made that such drugs are worth the price, that too much government heavy-handedness risks stifling innovation, and that a search for the “just price” is misguided, but also, for sure, that society should share the costs of some of these drugs, that measures should be taken to limit out-of-pocket costs to disease sufferers, and that reimbursement approaches are ripe for overhaul.  In that last bucket: if drugs work only some of the time, only pay for the cases in which they do work; foster true competition (rather than having the costs of all drugs in a class go up when a new one is introduced, as if drugs were houses); eliminate the middle man (i.e., pharmacy-benefit managers that take a cut—that appears on the horizon); and the “biggie,” having government payers push back harder on prices.  At least some of these measures seem likely, and at least some seem warranted.

But overall, high costs for truly innovative treatments are justifiable, where no alternatives existed previously and especially when other, more expensive and quite possibly less effective medical treatments may be obviated (see: drug treatment for hepatitis C vs liver transplantation).  This is not to endorse price gouging for existent, cheap drugs that fall into an incidental monopoly (in which case, BTW, elimination of said monopoly, through regulatory facilitation of alternative sources, is warranted).

The Cost of Getting RNA to Mumble

By Mark McQuain

In my previous blog entry, I crudely summarized the genetic basis for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and one pharmaceutical company’s (Sarepta) current effort to research, manufacture and finance a genetic treatment that increases the production of a muscle protein missing in patients with DMD called dystrophin. Please see my previous blog entry for that summary or this article for a more detailed thorough overview of the science and investigational process to date. For this blog entry, I want to consider the bioethics of the cost of Sarepta’s treatment eteplirsen (Exondys 51), currently estimated on average to be around $300,000 per year.

DMD is a devastating disease that generally causes the patient’s death by his mid-twenties but it only affects a very small number of boys and young men worldwide, estimated to be around 400-600 newborn males in the US each year. This small number of patients places medications for DMD in a category called Orphan Drugs, those that benefit fewer than 200,00 people per year. Eteplirsen is only beneficial in the 15% of DMD patients that have the specific RNA defect in dystophin protein production that eteplirsen corrects. Back-of-the napkin calculations mean that if 15% of all 600 boys born in the US every year with DMD (90 boys per year) used Sarepta’s $300,000-per-year drug, that is a $27 million increase in revenue (not profit) to Sarepta each year. While that sounds huge, it ignores the massive expensive cost barriers to bringing such a drug to market, including research, investigational studies to gain FDA approval and legal financial risk with future adverse effects yet unknown. Inability to gain FDA approval prohibits access to capital markets necessary to fund such a process. Were it not for grants available for orphan drugs, it is unlikely that eteplirsen would exist. Better for drug makers to target their R&D to a bigger disease market for the chance of a bigger reward (consider Bayer aspirin and their $3.3 BILLION profit in 2011 alone).

There are calls for Sarepta to “give back” some of their potential future income, calls from the very organizations that were their staunchest supporters in their FDA approval process. Strong ethical arguments are made that the company did benefit early on by using federal grants and this alone should require the company to reduce a portion of their future income by lowing the cost to patients. Calls for the FDA to federalize Sarepta’s patents and take government ownership will most certainly go unheeded as that would cause every other orphan drug manufacturer to immediately discontinue any further financial risk for fear of similar confiscation.

There are, however, opportunity costs beyond the financial. Some would say that the FDA approved eteplirsen with extremely flimsy data, as less than 10 boys showed borderline promising results when the drug was approved in November 2016. That FDA approval allowed Sarepta to survive as a company. Per the editorial board at the Wall Street Journal(subscription needed):

“But if FDA had cashiered that therapy, Sarepta would have lacked the resources to continue its research and testing to treat Duchenne and develop what may be an even better drug. If eteplirsen had failed to get approval, dollars and brain power would inevitably have flowed toward treating other diseases with more promise of success. FDA has tremendous influence over private investment.”

Indeed Sarepta has new genetic treatments in the pipeline which reportedly do provide increased levels of dystrophin, even for RNA patterns beyond what eteplirsen can presently correct. Have the ends justified the means? Presently, for DMD patients, despite the $300K yearly price tag for eteplirsen, that answer may be – yes. Sadly, there are no other currently functional treatment options for DMD – yet.

From a public health standpoint (and a public funding standpoint), orphan drugs for treatment of small population diseases like DMD are non-starters. Is the only answer to provide the opportunity for great financial reward to encourage individuals to assume all of the private risk?

Public input into gene-editing decisions

Lyme disease is caused by a type of bacteria that lives in mice, which are considered a “reservoir” for the disease-causing agent.  Ticks bite the mice, pick up the bacteria, and then infect people when they bite them.  (Ticks are called the “vector” for the disease.)

If mice were immune to the bacteria, their immune systems would destroy them, and there’s be no reservoir, and no Lyme disease.  If scientists genetically engineered mice to make them immune—for example, by editing their genes—they could make progress toward that goal.  But to work, the mouse population would have to be predominantly made of bacteria-immune mice.  That could be accomplished by using “gene drive,” an approach that would make the altered gene spread preferentially and rapidly in the population.  However, doing that could alter the environment in unpredictable ways.

Because of the risks, scientists on the “Mice Against Ticks” project are determined that even if they succeed in genetically altering mice as suggested, they will not release those mice into the wild without full public awareness and approval.  They are holding public meetings—specifically, in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—well in advance of the project coming to full fruition.  And they are trying to figure out, with the public, what level of communication and acceptance constitutes public approval.

Similarly, scientists in New Zealand would like to use a form of gene drive to greatly reduce the population of rats, possums, and other destructive predators that are decimating the environment.  And their public deliberations include seeking advice and, before taking action, buy-in from a network of Maori leaders.  Those conversations are so sensitive that the Maori objected when the scientists published a “what-if” type of article discussing the issues raised by the technology.  Among the concerns: some readers got the impression that gene editing of the animals was imminent, not hypothetical, as it still is.  Some of the news coverage of the Nuffield Council’s recent deliberations about the potential acceptability of heritable human gene editing seemed, likewise, to create the impression that the birth of the first gene-edited human is upon us—which it is not, not quite yet.

The public discussions above are two commendable moves toward true public involvement in decision-making about gene editing.  They were described in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  If you have subscription access, by all means read it.