The church’s evolving role to play in the age of biological manipulation

DNA double helix seen through an electron micrsocope. Credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, cc via

When it came to a wooly clone of Dolly the sheep, the Church of England had a list of reservations about the genetic technology at the ready prior to the scientists’ announcement. But today, the CRISPR technology has flown under the church’s radar and is host to a myriad of ethical and moral issues that scientists themselves are grappling with seemingly on their own.

CRISPR, unlike cloning however, could have a widespread impact on the human population depending on how scientists decide today to move forward and what areas of human disease they will decide to focus on. Most recently, scientists have used the technique to slow the growth of kidney and cervical cancer cells, according to recently published research.

Let’s back up though and figure out what CRISPR-Cas9 is exactly and what it is used to accomplish in the laboratory.

According to Gayle Woloschak, a professor at Northwestern University School of Medicine and associate director at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, CRISPR’s implication is still being assessed. Specifically, it is a nucleic acid complex that can be used to snip DNA at a precisely determined location, she told attendees to a lecture series titled, “Being the Church in an age of Biological Manipulation.”

The church’s evolving role to play in the age of biological manipulation

Gayle Woloschak speaks at ELCA event

CRISPR holds the potential to advance the genome because there are billions of possible ways to impact the genome through DNA cutting. The possible treatments that could be related to CRISPR are growing by the day, according to news reports. Diseases such as sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and HIV could very well be cured by CRISPR.

Last year, researchers at Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh unveiled a study using the gene editing tool as a way to eliminate HIV from infected cells. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley announced recently that they’ve discovered 10 new CRISPR enzymes that could be used to diagnose diseases like Zika or dengue fever quickly and cheaply. The new enzymes that Berkeley researchers discovered are variants of the CRISPR protein Cas13a. The specialty of these new enzymes is detecting specific sequences of RNA, including those from a virus.

Scientists like Woloschak are concerned though as we seem to be inching closer to the first genetically modified human being. Unlike most scientists, Woloschak also has a divinity degree and is active in the religion and science dialogue in addition to her work in the lab.

To be clear, scientists, she says, have imposed some constraints on current research. The concern is that a person’s genetic make-up could be forever changed via CRISPR in a way that can be passed on to the next generation —  thereby impacting future generations. Today, in most of the European Union CRISPR is treated in the same way as genetically modified organisms, which are forbidden. In the US, however, CRISPR is regulated by institutional review boards (IRBs) that are tasked with approving scientific research and looking at the ethical component of the proposed research. IRBs are more concerned about the harmful impact that CRISPR may have on the individual but not the impact on the overall population, according to Woloschak.

The world’s first GM human seems nearly inevitable in the coming years. In fact, a DIY CRISPR kit is being sold online by Josiah Zayner, who created The ODIN using crowdfunding, Woloschak said in her lecture. The ODIN sells a CRISPR kit that contains everything one needs to perform a sample experiment. The kits are assembled in Zayner’s Palo Alto garage and mailed to customers.

Many in the scientific community have called for a world-wide moratorium on CRISPR. While some top scientists call this moratorium essential, according to Woloschak a recent international summit held in Washington, D.C. had some interesting discussions. It was concluded that basic and pre-clinical research into CRISPR was necessary. The clinical use on somatic cells was deemed promising, while the use in the germline holds great potential but is risky because of potential effects and implications for future generations. CRISPR’s use in the germline could lead to permanent genetic enhancements in the human population.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine recently published, “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics and Governance,” in taking a position on how CRISPR technology ought to be researched and applied.

The report reads: “The technology has excited interest across the globe because of the insights it may offer into fundamental biological processes and the advances it may bring to human health. But with these advances come many questions, about the technical aspects of achieving desired results while avoiding unwanted effects, and about a range of uses that may include not only healing the sick, but also preventing disease in ourselves and future generations, or even altering traits unrelated to health needs. Now is the time to consider these questions.”

In the past month, researchers have found that the CRISPR process yielded a significant number of unexpected gene mutations in mice that were treated for blindness using CRISPR.

In Woloschak’s opinion, scientists have traditionally ‘policed’ themselves via IRBs and ethics panels, but going forward, the immensity of CRISPR’s impact suggests the need for a response from the church.

Previously, in 2011, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a social statement on genetics. The social statement, “Genetics, Faith and Responsibility,” was one of the first social policy statements adopted by a North American church that developed a comprehensive ethical framework for addressing advancements in medical and agricultural research. While it addresses the increasing reliance on genetic modifications, the statement was released well before the proliferation of CRISPR-Cas9’s potential for medical purposes.

Rev. Dr. Barbara Rossing, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, gave a companion lecture to Woloschak’s presentation that focused on the concept of healing in a Christian context. In her lecture, she also relied heavily on the NAS report, which concluded that germline genome editing “should be permitted only within a robust and effective regulatory framework.” This framework includes the availability of pre-clinical and/or clinical data on the risks and potential health benefits of the procedure. The NAS report also stressed continued monitoring of “both health and societal benefits and risks, with broad on-going participation and input by the public.”

Bringing the theological perspective into view, Rossing stressed that in the case of CRISPR that it is not “actually God coming in and miraculously healing creation, but the created co-creator healing the creation.”

“Obviously, we all want people living an abundant life,” she said, adding that one can look at CRISPR as a slippery slope or as a matter of humans providing healing as humans have been doing or 300,000 years. “Healing is part of who we are as God’s people,” she added.

Rossing also alluded to the social justice element of the potential use of CRISPR, where not all patients may have access to the new healing and potentially life-saving technology due to its cost.

A 2016 Pew research study found that while many Americans say they would want to use a technology like CRISPR for their own children, there is also considerable wariness when it comes to gene editing, especially among parents of minor children. Highly religious Americans, Pew found, are much more likely than those who are less religious to say they would not want to use gene-editing technology in their families.

And, when asked about the possibility of using human embryos in the development of gene-editing techniques, the majority of adults — including two-thirds of those with a high religious commitment—say that this would make gene editing less acceptable to them.

There is also the story of a young geneticist calling up churches in the Boston area looking to make contact with faith communities to engage them in a dialogue about her work in the lab as a geneticist. A number of years ago, Ting Wu asked pastors from Baltimore area black churches to consider helping her in educating the community on the latest genetic advancements, including CRISPR, according to a National Public Radio story from last year. Her aim was to empower communities that are skeptical of science because they have been underserved or even mistreated in the past.

Wu reportedly met with religious leaders and even arranged for some clergy to speak with executives at genomics companies.

Wu’s story shows how much of a grass roots education it has been in the area of CRISPR and its implications. Still, the weighty questions remain. If some disabilities can be ‘cured’, should they be? What if tinkering with the genome creates enhancements for some and not for others? Could the risks to the human population outweigh the benefits for individuals or vice versa?

While researchers continue their work in the lab, the church has the weighty task of considering whether this research is leading to ethical behavior in the healthcare community and whether the future of humanity should be determined by genetic modification.

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