Opinion

ROE: Gene Editing Could Revolutionize Science — So Why Are Scientists Trying To Turn Animals Into Frankenstein?

(Photo: Chinese Academy of Sciences handout from Cell/ via REUTERS)

Anyone who follows science news has probably heard of the gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9, a natural DNA editing mechanism found in bacteria that is now being tried in other species. This mechanism for clipping unwanted DNA can be used to insert or delete genes and edit mutated genes in all living creatures or embryos.

CRISPR gene-editing technology has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of humans by developing new treatments and cures for human disease. It also has the potential to allow humans to change the natural world around them to make their lives more convenient.

The seemingly limitless potential of CRISPR as a genome modifying tool has sparked numerous ethical questions regarding its use in humans: What if people start creating designer babies? How do you get consent to genetically alter a human who isn’t yet born? What about the potential side effects of gene editing, referred to as “off-target” effects, in humans? Are scientists playing God? Should there be regulations on who is allowed to use this readily accessible technology?

What is glaringly absent from ethical debates about the potential uses of CRISPR is any discussion surrounding the ethics of tweaking the genomes of animals in CRISPR experiments. These questions must be asked now as animals are already suffering unbearable costs in gene-editing experiments that are doomed to fail to help humans in any way.

Experimenters are using CRISPR to try and create cows, chickens and pigs who can grow faster and subsequently be killed and eaten faster, and to design animals who can be kept in cramped conditions without getting diseases that can be transmitted to humans. CRISPR has been used to make hyper-muscular beagles who can theoretically hunt faster and create show horses who might be able to jump higher.

Thanks to the lack of meaningful oversight to protect animals in laboratories, CRISPR is being used to induce symptoms of diseases in animals who would never be afflicted with them naturally, supposedly to help experimenters “understand” human disease pathology.

Mice and rats’ genes are being edited to make them blind and/or deaf, to have symptoms similar to those of hemophilia, sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and muscular dystrophy. Sheep have been given a condition similar to cystic fibrosis, and rabbits and hamsters have been made to suffer from heart disease. Monkeys are suffering with symptoms similar to those of autism, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson’s disease. Pigs’ genomes are being edited so that their organs might be more suitable for transplantation into humans.

Experimenters are using CRISPR to give every animal they can keep in a cage some form of cancer. Others have been deleting or inserting genes in animals just to see what happens. And these Dr. Frankenstein-like experimenters are just getting started.

But experimenters aren’t so forthcoming with crucial information about these studies. Remember those off-target effects, the unexpected side effects that are so worrisome for humans? Off-target effects are the unplanned and unexpected genetic alterations that commonly accompany gene editing. They have proven disastrous for animals, who are suffering from a variety of horrors.

Here are just a few examples of the off-target effects experienced by animals: cancer, growth abnormalities, physical deformities, difficulty walking, respiratory problems, kidney and liver problems, malformed organs, ulcers, brain bleeding, and premature death.

It’s all a nightmare for animals, but for humans it’s equally bad — because it’s not working. Genetic engineering and selective breeding through other means has been used to induce human diseases in animals and to alter growth rates or muscle mass in farm animals for decades. Those same cruel experiments using older genetic modification tools failed spectacularly.

Humans are not receiving organs transplanted from other animals. We are not dining on faster-growing, disease-resistant animals and we still have no cures for cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, and on and on. This is what scientists call “translational failure.” Due to the vast species differences in physiology, behavior, and environment, data animal experiments fail to translate into safe and effective treatments for humans.

For humans with genetically-mediated conditions, CRISPR may revolutionize treatment options. That is exciting. But scientists need to utilize non-animal methods to validate this technology, and oversight committees need to stop experiments being conducted on animals for the sole purpose of human convenience or curiosity.

Until then, for animals, CRISPR is merely a faster way to cause them the same unspeakable and unjustifiable suffering that has gone on in laboratories and on farms for years in what are thus far failed attempts to somehow better the lives of humans. Why aren’t “scientists” and “ethicists” talking about this? Good question. That discussion needs to happen now.

Katherine Roe, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist with People for the Ethical Treatment of AnimalsShe previously researched human cognitive development and neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins University, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the University of California, San Diego.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.