Pope Francis has appointed the co-inventors of the CRISPR genome editing technology to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who discovered CRISPR fewer than ten years ago, were appointed to the Vatican’s scientific academy consecutively Aug. 10-11.
Their discovery sparked research into new treatments for cancer and other diseases, earning the two female scientists the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but it also poses a host of bioethical questions.
CRISPR is the simplest technology to date for editing human DNA. It allows scientists to use an enzyme called Cas9 to “cut and paste” gene sequences.
This has been applied to experimental treatments for sickle cell anemia and certain cancers, but has also raised bioethical concerns, including its application in “designer babies.”
The existence of these gene altering therapies raises a question of how much modification and enhancement is permissible. The ability to edit genomes could also be used for purposes other than medical treatment. A number of human traits could be enhanced or changed, such as vision, intelligence, or abilities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines when he spoke about the possibility of using CRISPR technology to make stronger biologically enhanced soldiers “who can fight without fear, compassion, regret or pain.”
Ethicists around the world raised concerns after Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of CRISPR-modified babies whose genes had been edited as embryos in 2018.
He was later sentenced to three years imprisonment for violating the regulations on such work. Many countries limit CRISPR research to discarded embryos leftover from in vitro fertilization. The embryos are then destroyed after being studied.
Current U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations prohibit gene modification on viable human embryos – meaning that human embryos who receive gene modification are always destroyed.
In May, the International Society for Stem Cell Research ended its decades-old rule that limited growing human embryos in a lab beyond 14 days for scientific research, and now proposes that it is possible on a case by case basis.
National Catholic Bioethics Center President Joseph Meaney has condemned experimentation on human embryos.
“There’s a real tendency in modern secular science etc. to say, ‘Well, you can do this, but just don’t allow these children to be born.’ Clone and kill or, you know, edit and kill, and it’s just not in keeping at all with the Catholic perspective on the dignity of the human person,” Meaney told EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.
“There are estimated to be over 2 million spare embryos, thanks to the IVF industry, and science is getting a hold of a lot of these embryos and just doing mass experimentation,” he said.
Meaney added that it could be permissible to use this gene editing technology to correct genetic problems in adults who can give their informed consent after it had been safely tested in animals.
Catholic teaching states that the dignity of a person “must be recognized in every human being from conception until natural death.”
“This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research,” Dignitas personae, a 2008 instruction on certain bioethical questions published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, said.
Doudna, one of the CRISPR co-founders, has since called for regulation of germline editing, or heritable alterations made to egg and sperm cells. Her book “A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution” also raised questions about the ethical dilemmas and potential unintended consequences of editing the human genome.
The University of California at Berkeley professor is on the board of directors of Johnson & Johnson, and has founded several start-ups, including Mammoth Biosciences, which applies CRISPR technologies to healthcare, agriculture, and biodefense.
Doudna and Charpentier are among five female scientists and one man who have been appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the last two weeks.
Pope Francis has also appointed Donna Strickland, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018 for her contributions to developing the highest-power lasers in the world.
South African anthropologist Pearl Sithole and Dutch astrophysicist Ewine Fleur van Dishoeck, a pioneer in astrochemistry, were also appointed to the pontifical academy this month. Taiwanese epidemiologist Chen Chien-jen was named to the academy in July.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences traces its roots to the Accademia dei Lincei, one of the world’s first exclusively scientific academies, founded in Rome in 1603. The short-lived academy’s members included the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei.
Bl. Pius IX re-established the academy as the Pontifical Academy of the New Lynxes in 1847. Pius XI gave it its current name in 1936.
One of the current members, who are known as “ordinary academicians,” is Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and is the director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Past members included Stephen Hawking and scores of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, such as Guglielmo Marconi, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger.
Religious belief – Catholic or otherwise – is not a criterion for membership in the pontifical academy. This open membership policy exists because the Pontifical Academy is conceived as a place where science and faith can meet and discuss. It is not a confessional forum, but a place where it is possible to have an open discussion and examine scientific developments.
Pope Francis has raised concerns about the use of technology without ethical considerations in his encyclical Laudato si’, in which he condemned experimentation involving human embryos.
“There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development,” Pope Francis said.
“In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit.”