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Scientific soul-searching

The revelation that a Chinese researcher produced gene-edited babies should be a wake-up call over ethics

Scientist He Jiankui during an October interview in China Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Scientific soul-searching

Scientists worldwide are still reeling from the announcement last week that Chinese researcher He Jiankui and his team produced the first genetically edited babies. Within a few days, the Chinese government called a halt to He’s research, and the scientist is now under investigation by various ethical and regulatory bodies in the country. Most experts have decried the experiment as unethical and reckless, and some hope it will serve as a wake-up call to the scientific community, which has no way to enforce ethical guidelines.

He claims to have used the CRISPR gene-editing technique to modify the DNA of embryos from seven couples undergoing fertility treatments. His experiment resulted in one pregnancy that produced twin girls last month, according to He, with a possible second pregnancy underway.

The modification introduced a mutation to disable a white blood cell receptor site, called CCR5, that otherwise allows the HIV virus to invade the cells. In all of the cases, the father suffered an HIV infection, but He said he wanted to protect the babies from contracting HIV infection later in life. Becoming infected from their father’s sperm is unlikely and easily prevented by a simple procedure before insemination.

Editing an embryo’s genes could allow parents who carry disease-causing mutations to produce healthy children, but it could also produce unintended harmful effects, which all future generations could inherit. And the traits affected can vary from person to person and in response to different environmental influences, making the individual consequences impossible to predict. The United States and many other countries ban this type of research, but China’s regulations are unclear.

Some studies show that people who naturally inherit a mutation of CCR5 from both parents suffer more serious symptoms and higher mortality rates if they contract West Nile virus. This led researchers to believe the mutation may make it difficult to fight off other infectious diseases as well, Science Magazine reported.

He justified his research by claiming it was a medical necessity, but many experts believe the risk to these babies outweighs the potential benefit of making them resistant to a disease that they may never contract and that could be prevented in other ways.

But what if the medical benefits outweighed the risks? Deciding whether to edit inheritable genetic code should involve more than a simple analysis of the biological pros and cons, said Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member.

“What we are talking about here is not just a medical treatment,” he said. “It is not just a new medical or bio-medical technology. It is, in essence, a redefinition of what it means to be human.”

Rather than approaching the definition of humanity with caution and reverence for the Creator of human beings, scientists are beginning to blow past the issue at breakneck speed.

William Hurlbut, a bioethicist at Stanford University, where He did postdoctoral research, had talked with He during the past two years about the ethics of gene editing. Despite cautions from Hurlburt, who does not support the experiments, He continued with his work.

“He’s an idealist. He’s an inexperienced, perhaps naive, optimist,” Hurlbut told The Stanford Daily. “I kind of knew I was involved in something of significance. But it’s unfortunate that it had to happen this way. Sad, really, because he seems like a guy with good intentions.”

The baptistery where a painting of Jesus was discovered in Israel

The baptistery where a painting of Jesus was discovered in Israel Cambridge/Photo by Dror Maayan

Experts discover 1,500-year-old painting of Christ

Experts just discovered the oldest-known representation of Jesus in a 1,500-year-old church among ruins in the ancient city of Shivta in Israel’s Negev desert.

High-resolution photographic equipment allowed historians for the first time to pick out the image, which was mostly obscured by heavy erosion on the ceiling of the church baptistery. The researchers published the results of their find in the journal Antiquity.

The painting shows a young Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River with an elongated nose and face, large eyes, and short, curly hair. Artistic representations throughout Egypt and the Syria-Palestine region commonly depicted a short-haired Jesus during that era. Later Byzantine images of Christ showed him with long hair, like most images today, Emma Maayan-Fanar, the art historian who discovered the painting, told Live Science.

The picture, which also includes John the Baptist, offers a more detailed depiction of Christ’s face than any other ancient painting. —J.B.

The baptistery where a painting of Jesus was discovered in Israel

The baptistery where a painting of Jesus was discovered in Israel Cambridge/Photo by Dror Maayan

Whales sing a new song

Music trends—from rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s to the electronic dance music and hip-hop of today—change over decades. Now marine biologists have discovered that humpback whales also periodically change the tunes they sing.

All males in a population of humpbacks sing the same song, but individuals may embellish their tunes to stand out from their peers. Every few years the entire choir will change the pattern and rhythm of its melodious squeaks and groans.

To understand how the whales pick up these new tunes, the researchers conducted a study, published in the Nov. 21 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B, analyzing eastern Australian humpback songs from 95 singers over 13 years. They discovered that the males picked up a new song from a Western Australian population while sharing a feeding ground during migration. Over the next few years, the song spread to all South Pacific populations. —J.B

New vaccine may finally wipe out polio

Researchers at the University of Southern California developed a new type of polio vaccine that may, at last, globally eradicate the crippling and highly infectious disease.

Until now, the polio vaccine quickly broke down if not kept cool, presenting a problem for developing countries where refrigeration was unavailable. Woo-Jin Shin, lead author of the study, said, “No matter how wonderful a drug or vaccine is, if it isn’t stable enough to be transported, it doesn’t do anyone much good.” The study was published in the Nov. 27 issue of the journal mBio.

The researchers developed a freeze-dried vaccine powder and stored it at room temperature for four weeks. When they rehydrated the powder and used it to vaccinate mice, they found it offered full protection.

Scientists have come close to wiping out polio before. In 2017, experts documented only 22 cases worldwide, but the disease recently reared its head in Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Syria, and Pakistan. —J.B.

Ring of Pontius Pilate discovered

Fifty years ago, archaeologists unearthed a bronze ring near the site of the fortress built by King Herod near Bethlehem. Now, thanks to technological advances, researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority labs successfully deciphered the name on the ring: It’s Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Jerusalem who sentenced Jesus to death, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

The inscription included an image of a wine vessel surrounded by the name “Pilatus” in Greek. According to Danny Schwartz, a historian of the Second Temple Period, the name was rare in Israel during that era. “I don’t know of any other Pilatus from the period, and the ring shows he was a person of stature and wealth,” he told the newspaper. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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