APU’s Center for Research in Science discusses ethics in cutting-edge science

Experts and enthusiasts alike gathered at Azusa Pacific University on Tuesday, June 12, to discuss the future of gene editing and its potential impact on society.

Louise Huang, Ph.D., director of APU’s Center for Research in Science (CRIS) partnered with Marnie Gelbart, Ph.D., director of programs at the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd) to host this “Intercampus Symposium on Gene Editing: Dialogue at the Intersection of Science, Ethics and Faith.”

The symposium’s keynote speaker was Ting Wu, Ph.D., director of the Consortium for Space Genetics and director of the pgEd at Harvard Medical School.

Because genetics is so personal, Wu said, she believes that all people need to have a voice in the use of gene editing. So after the keynote speaker session, the audience heard from a panel of people of various professions, from biophysicists to pastors.

Huang emphasized the importance of intersectional dialogue on this topic in light of rapidly developing technologies.

The issue is beyond the sciences,” Huang said. “[We have included] many disciplines [in this event] so that we get a meaningful and productive conversation, because there are a lot of stakeholders as these gene editing technologies develops.”

Gene editing has been a topic of much interest since the early 1990s, when scientist Francisco Mojica proposed that repeating sequences in the genetic code are a central part of the immune system, defending against bacteria. These sequences are referred to as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR. When viruses attack the immune system, the code uses CRISPR-related protein 9 to cut the virus’ DNA apart, disabling the virus. The code keeps remnants of the virus’ DNA so it is able to recognize and eliminate the harmful bacteria if it returns.

Mojica’s theory was experimentally proven in 2007 by scientist Philippe Horvath and his team. In 2013, the Zhang Lab at the Broad Institute published the first method to engineer genome cells in humans and mice using the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

These swift developments in gene editing have the potential to make a significant impact on the medical field. There is the possibility of editing the genetic variants that raise an individual’s risk of developing cancer by replacing those genes. Gene editing could also potentially eradicate viruses like Zika and malaria by altering the DNA of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

“the newly developed technology is like a tool that can precisely find, remove and replace a specific sequence of genetic material such as the DNA,” Huang said.

Gene editing has the capacity for a range of medical uses. In addition to removing diseases, there is also talk of using gene editing to alter physical appearance and to “designer babies” by selecting the best genetic traits for a child.

For many, this brings up a plethora of ethical questions. Should bioengineers take a Hippocratic oath to do no harm, as medical doctors do? Will this lead to a potential return of the eugenics movement? In altering genetic code, are we playing God?

That’s why CRIS held this symposium.

“God has given us the ability to investigate, explore and be creative with these discoveries, but with that comes huge responsibilities,” Huang said. “There is potential for horrific things to occur if this technology lies in the hands of people with evil intentions. By partnering with pgEd, CRIS hopes to ensure that all voices are heard in this discussion to avoid repeating the mistakes of past eugenics movement.”

Huang said that before embarking on these endeavors, we should ask ourselves a question.

“We should ask ourselves, ‘is it anthropocentric, or theocentric?’ Are we doing these things because of our adoration of God and the desire to serve our neighbors or is it something else? Human motivation can often be complicated, and we should examine that more closely.”

Kathryn Applegate, Ph.D., resources editor at BioLogos, a science and faith organization, was also featured on the panel. She expressed her excitement that the technology might soon become available to everyone.

“I’m thrilled to see this tech going down in cost and becoming more available to the mainstream,” Applegate said. “But in light of that eventuality, I think as a culture we need to think about the future of medicine in a pluralistic world.”

Leah Rowland, a Ph.D. candidate at Loma Linda University, said that having this discussion is important because people have the potential to affect this field by voting in local, state and national elections to fund scientific research.

“Often, communities don’t hear about these things until much, much further down the road,” Rowland said. “But we should bring this discussion to them so they can make educated decisions when it comes time to vote.”

CRIS is committed to cultivating an informed community of students, scholars, and laypersons by promoting research that encompasses and extends the scope of scientific studies to address the inseparable relationships between science, faith, and culture. You can find more CRIS events here: