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Press Release: The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science

The first study in which the DNA of human embryos was intentionally modified has been published in the journal Protein & Cell, released on Saturday. This research is significant because it may be an important step toward a world where we are free from genetic disease. However allegations that Nature and Science refused to publish this research on ethical grounds are concerning.

The Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics Professor Julian Savulescu has called on Nature and Science to clearly explain their editorial decisions in relation this study.

“If these studies were rejected for ethical reasons we need to know what these reasons are.” Professor Savulescu said.

“There was absolutely no potential for this research to directly result in the birth of a modified human and it is unclear how the study could have harmed or wronged anyone.

Nature should explain why it deems this research ethically problematic, and yet publishes other controversial research, involving viruses, with the potential to directly kill millions of people.”

The study by Huang and co-authors represents a small but important step in advancing gene editing techniques and understanding their risks. Gene editing techniques hold the promise of curing genetic defects such as cystic fibrosis, thalassaemia, Huntington Disease, and some forms of Alzheimer’s disease.

The reasons for pursuing research which may one day allow for the eradication of genetic diseases are clear. However the authors of the study have reported they were rejected by Nature and Science on ethical grounds.

This follows Nature and Science both publishing commentaries calling for a moratorium on this type of research, or for it to be strongly discouraged.  The timing of these commentaries is remarkable and might have influenced other journals to follow their editorial decision and not publish the Huang study.

Professor Savulescu called on Nature and Science to explain their decision.

“Gene editing is a revolutionary technology, which potentially offers the next generation an enormous range of benefits.

It is important that bad arguments, empty rhetoric and personal interests do not cloud rational thinking and deny the next generation the enormous benefits potentially on offer from this type of research.

Nature and Science need to clearly state what systems they have in place to make decisions on whether research should be rejected on ethical grounds.”

Far from being wrong, the research by Huang and colleagues is ethically imperative. Such research not only has the potential to provide permanent cures for genetic diseases, it also holds the potential to correct the genetic contribution to common diseases like diabetes.

Imagine that I am a scientist. I have a promising candidate treatment that could save the lives of a million people per year. I decide not to continue the research. I am responsible for the deaths of those million people if my research would have led to a cure.

One is left with the suspicion that religious reasons are behind the “ethical” justifications for not accepting this research. And scientists must be terrified by a Christian fundamentalist backlash against their research if they are connected in anyway with research on human embryos. This could be detrimental to their funding and their commercial interests in developments using CRISPR that don’t involve embryos.

More than 100,000 fetuses are aborted every in the UK for social reasons, not for reasons of health. Healthy embryos are discarded routinely throughout the UK and US – yet valid scientific research capable of improving the lives of much of humanity is resisted because it involves a handful of embryos with lethal underlying genetic abnormalities.

It is the Chinese scientists led by Huang, not our leading scientific journals, who occupy the real ethical high ground.


Chris Gyngell

Julian Savulescu

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1 Comment on this post

  1. I think this issue speaks to a greater problem about ethics and morality in general: When pressing moral issues arise, everyone thinks that they are an expert on the matter, and can be the arbiters of moral decision making. You see this in all walks of life, from the mundane to the professional, that people are increasingly consulting with experts about how to raise their children, how to eat, how to get along with their partners, but we don’t see this with ethics. It’s really disappointing.

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