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Modifying the DNA of Human Embryos; an « unacceptable transgression »

Published on 05/06/2015 in Scientific research


Interview of Jean-Marie Le Méné in « Famille Chrétienne »

A team of Chinese researchers has been manipulating human embryos, the genes of which they had modified.

Publications of their work on the website « Protein and Cell » reveal that a number of Chinese researchers have modified a defective gene in several human embryos. Highly controverted, this research received criticism from the scientific community, which is concerned with the limitations set by such research. The main issue concerns the impact this genetic modification would have on the descendants of the embryo. Anne Galy, director of the “Inserm 951” unit at the “Généthon d’Évry” summarizes this general concern by reminding us that: “This article raises major scientific and ethical issues as it deals with the possibility of manipulating the human genome of an embryo in a way that would allow the modification to be transmitted to the descendants”. The effects of these modifications would therefore be potentially serious and unpredictable for any child with a modified gene, but also for the child’s descendants. According to Jean-Marie Le Méné, president of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation, the intention of wanting to cure a genetic disease is “laudable, but we must not give the impression that any progress in the field of genetics justifies crossing the line”. Indeed, the fact that the research was carried out on human embryos is not what seems to bother the scientific community.

Protecting the embryo from manipulations and… not treating it like an object

Beyond this, the question of ethics is what comes at the base of any research. According to Jean-Marie Le Méné: “The precautionary principle concerns the technique used in research: one must not take the risk of interfering with the genome. From my point of view, the moral fault lies, first of all, in the fact of using an embryo like an object.” The scientists working under the leadership of Junjiu Huang from the university of Sun Yat-Sen in Guangzhou try to justify themselves by arguing that the 86 embryos used, all came from in vitro fertilization and were presented as non-viable. “That is no excuse,” insists Jean-Marie Le Méné, “these embryos were obviously human”.

Concerned, the president of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation does not believe that the laws on bioethics will be able to prevent this type of research in the long run. “The French example is indeed telling. The first law put up barriers that were taken down in the second and third laws. The Law is not the political expression of a given moment, it authorizes transgressions one step at a time, following the evolution of the public opinion.”

Moral barriers and research that is respectful of humankind

According to Jean-Marie Le Méné, the sole moral and ethical barriers are enough to protect human embryos in the future. He speaks of the importance of international awareness on the subject, motivated by the example of the Holy See, which successfully mobilised against the cloning of human beings. “We need to understand how a human being works; it is much more effective than trying to stem the flow.” As a matter of fact, discoveries made from research respectful of humankind are far more promising. Thus, Dr. Yamanaka, 2012 Nobel Prize, “has taken cloning out of his equation by fabricating non-embryonic stem cells. He now respects both ethics and humankind”. Jean-Marie Le Méné believes that “Paying the price of transgression is no way to progress. As a fact, even the researchers themselves recognize that their experiments failed. Fifteen embryos did not survive the treatment, and among the 71 that were left, only 4 had their deficient gene “corrected”.

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