Questions about Genetic Research
Written by R. Seldenrijk
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Reformed Ethics - Bioethics

Dr. R. Seldenrijk has a biomedical background and an interest in the ethics of health care. For the past eight years, he has worked for the ’sHeeren Loo Healthcare Foundation, a care organization for the mentally disabled with an administrative office in Amersfoort. He is involved in establishing and supervising academic research into the causes of mental disabilities. These research projects are carried out in conjunction with various universities in the Netherlands. Dr. Seldenrijk and his wife have three daughters and one son. Their fourth and eldest daughter died of a serious heart defect at four months of age. Dr. Seldenrijk is a member of the Gereformeerde Gemeente in Zeist, the Netherlands. He was interviewed by P. A. Gunst and Z. Crum. Translated by Judith van Berkom and reprinted from Daniel, a Dutch periodical for young people.

Genetics

Dr. Seldenrijk, where does the word “genetics” come from?

It comes from the Greek word gennaein, which means to bring forth or create. The book of Genesis derives its title from this word. Genesis is the book in the Bible that talks about the origin of the world, about everything in the world that is alive, and about the creation of mankind. In Genesis, God wrote about how the world was created.  Genetics is the study of hereditary factors: qualities that have their origins in ancestry and are passed on from generation to generation.

How are these qualities passed on?

Through genes, which are hereditary carriers. Each gene carries one hereditary factor, for example, hair or eye color, blood group, the rhesus factor, or a certain illness.

Where are these genes located in the body?

In the nucleus of each cell. The adult human body has approximately five thousand million cells, and the nucleus of each of these cells is the same in any one individual.

The nucleus must be very small.

Yes, it is one hundredth of a millimeter in diameter and has forty-six chromosomes that contain genes. Obviously, we need very strong microscopes to see this.

What are chromosomes?

They are rod-like structures that are copied each time a cell divides. When a male sperm cell unites with a female ovum and a new life starts, the embryo receives twenty-three chromosomes from the father and twenty-three from the mother, each with its own genes. So the new embryo cell has forty-six chromosomes. The cell then divides until the human being is fully developed. The very first embryo cell contains all the hereditary traits, which will determine the life of this human being. We can truly say, “Great is Thy creation, O Lord.”

How long have we known that genes carry hereditary traits?

Around 1860, the Czech monk Gregor Johann Mendel discovered the existence of genetic factors. More work was done on this until, in 1909, the Danish botanist Johannsen used the concept of a gene to describe a hereditary trait. Once it became clear how hereditary factors were passed on, the search began for the building blocks of the gene. James D. Watson, an American, and Francis Crick, an Englishman, discovered these in 1953.

What are the building blocks of a gene?

These are the deoxyribonucleic acids, better known by their acronym DNA. DNA occurs in all living things: viruses, bacteria, animals, and people. It is made up of a double thread that looks like a spiral staircase. DNA is packed like a ball of yarn into the nucleus of the cell. If the DNA of all cells in a human being were stretched into one long thread, the length would equal eight times the distance from the earth to the moon. This seems unbelievable, but it is true!

Are all genes and their building blocks known?

We know thousands, but there are many more. Researchers worldwide are working to discover them all. They estimate it may take another five years. The genes need to be mapped and catalogued so that the so-called “human genotype” can be created. In financial terms, millions are being spent on genetic research.

Manipulation

We are speaking here not only about genetics but also about genetic manipulation. What does that involve?

The word “manipulation” contains the Latin word for “hand.” In this context, manipulation ultimately means working with your hands in a laboratory with genetic material so that the end result becomes what you want it to be.

How does that happen?

The DNA can be disassembled, and pieces removed. You can compare it to a building kit where something can be made in a variety of different ways. It’s also possible to take pieces of DNA from, for example, a person and combine it with that of a bacterium.

Prenatal Research

What does prenatal research involve?

Prenatal diagnostics, research done before birth, uses knowledge gained through genetic manipulation. Real gene therapy, where healthy DNA is transferred into the corresponding DNA of the embryo cell which carries the disease, is not often used yet in practice.

Research can be done before birth into possible birth defects. Is that allowed?

Yes, if there is evidence of a need and if, throughout the process, the welfare of the unborn child is served. An indication for the need could be previous difficulties in pregnancy or the prior birth of a handicapped child. In prenatal research, either amniotic fluid is extracted or a sample of placental tissue (the mother’s placenta, which has the same cells as the embryo). Amniotic fluid research dates back to the 1970s and can be done from the sixteenth week of pregnancy. The CVS test (chorionic villus sampling) dates back to 1982 and can be done from the ninth week of pregnancy. Genetic manipulation can be viewed as cut and paste work done with hereditary factors in research center laboratories.

Should we not reject this kind of research?

There have been incorrect applications, but genetic manipulation has positive uses. For example, the origins of various illnesses have been discovered through genetic manipulation. This knowledge is applied to prenatal diagnostics. By transferring healthy DNA from another person into the corresponding gene of the carrier of the illness, the disease can, in principle, be cured. however, you need access to the most original cell, for example, the embryo cell or the original cell which produces blood cells. This research is still in its infancy.

Gene therapy, according to Christian ethics, should only be performed on the same person. That is why you cannot manipulate the genes of sex cells. This would affect not only the person who was born through genetic manipulation of the sex cells, but also their offspring. DNA manipulation is such precise work that occasionally something could go wrong and the building blocks can be damaged. The mistake would also be passed on. In the medical field, it is all about the one patient who is sick.

Is gene therapy also practiced on adults or only on the unborn?

If hereditary factors are changed through gene therapy, this must take place at the beginning of the life cycle: in the early embryo or in the beginning of the life cycle of blood cells. The newly injected hereditary factor can reproduce itself throughout the organism by cell division or, if we are dealing with blood cells, throughout the blood. This is how blood disease is treated and cured.

Where else is genetic manipulation used?

Genetic manipulation is used primarily in industry, for example, in the production of medications. A good example of that is insulin, which initially came from the pancreases of animals in slaughterhouses. Insulin extraction from slaughtered animals has decreased while the demand for insulin has increased. The number of diabetics—who are dependent on insulin on a daily basis—is expected to increase dramatically in the future. So human insulin is now produced by transferring the DNA from the human gene for insulin into a bacterium. If we need more, we cultivate more bacteria so that we always have enough.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of prenatal research?

When it is known that the unborn child has a defect, sometimes treatment can be started during pregnancy. Think about the metabolic disorder PKU (phenylketonuria). With this disorder, detected in eight-day-old babies by means of a heel prick, a certain protein cannot be completely absorbed. As a result, a harmful substance is produced which damages the brain. If, during the pregnancy, PKU is detected, the mother can immediately adjust her eating habits, making sure that this type of protein isn’t a part of her diet. Another example is the insertion of a drain in an unborn child who has hydrocephalus, thus somewhat reducing abnormal brain development.

Both amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, which are forms of prenatal diagnosis to determine chromosomal or genetic disorders in the fetus, can cause a spontaneous abortion. This is why there should always be a medical reason for these tests. The danger is that the discovery of genetic defects often leads to a recommendation for abortion. This counters God’s command: “Thou shalt not kill.” Modern mankind, supposing to know and to be allowed to do everything, also wants to make decisions about quality of life.

Is genetic manipulation permitted in all life forms?

There are various successive forms of life: viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, and human beings. We see in this development an incorrect assumption of evolution by modern mankind. The closer the life form is to that of human beings, the more careful we need to be with it. We try to destroy viruses and bacteria that cause disease. Should we not be allowed to manipulate these as well by genetic modification to prepare medications that will counter these viruses and bacteria?

We can dispose of plants that are used for research. But it is different when you dispose of animals. Proverbs 12:10 says, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.” The question of whether genetic manipulation is ethically responsible becomes more pressing if the animal’s welfare is affected. This is even more true when applied to humans.

What are the implications in relation to Down’s syndrome?

Prenatal research can also determine whether or not the fetus has Down’s syndrome. These children have forty-seven instead of forty-six chromosomes in the cell nucleus.

In addition, genetic research can be applied inappropriately, as you pointed out earlier.

Indeed. As our knowledge of hereditary factors increases, we conclude that we can create anything. Mankind places himself above God. We want everything to be perfect and cannot accept any deviations. As a result, the current trend is often to advise parents to abort if deviations are discovered in the fetus through genetic research. There is also the danger that embryos will be used in DNA research, which is against the sixth commandment.

Shouldn’t parents have a right to know?

The question does arise: Should you be informed that your child will be born handicapped, especially if the child has very little chance of survival? If you don’t know, you don’t have to worry about it—although it will always be a concern to some extent. I think it is good to know. More than the usual amount of prayer can then be offered on this child’s behalf.

Our oldest daughter was born with defects to her heart and esophagus. We didn’t know about it in advance. however, I was strongly influenced by the words of the Lord Jesus: “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” That was impressed upon me again after she underwent several operations. And it was confirmed when the Lord took her away after four months. She could go to him; a better place had been prepared for her. Concern and care for a disabled person can connect us to God, although it will be a difficult experience. The Lord God will be there for us. No one has the right to judge quality of life. The life of a disabled person is the life of a human being and is therefore as valuable as that of any other.

Questions from the Audience

Are a person’s genetic features easy to determine?

Yes. They are located in the nucleus of all cells and these cells are also found in the blood. The DNA can be determined with the extraction of a small amount of blood.

If people possess the same DNA building blocks in their genes, will they be identical?

No, that’s not necessarily the case. Their development is partially determined by outside factors such as their environment and the food they eat. This is the same for plants and animals. You might have two identical dandelions, but the dandelion in fields in the Netherlands is totally different from the plant in the fields of Switzerland.

What stand should we take concerning further development in this area?

We shouldn’t reject developments prematurely if we’re not able to take stock of the situation. People didn’t believe it was possible to go to the moon; they thought the world would be destroyed. We shouldn’t set limits ahead of time. It is true that any form of knowledge appeals to our sense of responsibility. There are limits! We must preserve the Bible’s view of God’s creation and uphold the value of human life, including the life of the handicapped.

Dr. R. Seldenrijk has a biomedical background and an interest in the ethics of health care. He works for the ’sHeeren Loo Healthcare Foundation, a care organization for the mentally disabled with an administrative office in Amersfoort. He attends the Gereformeerde Gemeente in Zeist, the Netherlands. This article was printed in Heritage Reformed Churches' "The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth" and is republished here with permission.