Creation of Smarter Mice Raises Concerns for Human Beings

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

WASHINGTON (BP) -The prospects of designer children and a "genetic caste system" should be concerns in the wake of news that researchers have improved intelligence in mice by adding a single gene to embryos, said a Southern Baptist bioethicist.

In an article in the Sept. 2 issue of Nature, scientists said they had produced smarter mice by inserting in embryos extra copies of a gene that "directs production of a nerve protein that helps the brain recognize that two things are linked," The Washington Post reported. The gene, called NMDA receptor 2B, or NR2B, is present in human beings and all mammals, according to the report. While this gene usually becomes less active in middle age, as memory and learning capacities decrease, it has been programmed in the genetically enhanced mice to remain active permanently and to be transferred to offspring, according to the report.

The results for human beings are uncertain, said Ben Mitchell, biomedical consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. While Mitchell and the researchers said it could mean the development of treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, it also brings a focus to the issue of using genetic manipulation to increase what are considered normal mental and physical capabilities.

"Is there an ethical difference between enhancement technologies and treatment technologies? Should we use genetic engineering to 'improve' human intelligence and other functions or should it be used only to treat disease?" Mitchell said. "Churches need to begin discussing these questions now and not wait until human experiments begin."

His fear, Mitchell said, is "technologies such as these will encourage the development of a eugenic mind-set -- wishing to create 'better children through biotechnology.' Parents are under tremendous pressure to raise children who are brighter, faster and prettier than their peers. If it were possible to enhance the mental and physical traits of one's children, the pressure to do so would be almost irresistible in a society like ours." It also creates at least one other problem, he said.

"Only those who were wealthy enough to afford such technologies for their children would have access to these so-called improvements. This would set up a genetic caste system in which the poor are even further disadvantaged," said Mitchell, assistant professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

"By itself this announcement may not be earth-shattering, but it raises huge questions we need to be addressing now, not later." Joe Tsien, the Princeton University molecular biologist who led the team experimenting with mice, acknowledged the societal questions raised by the results.

"We're in an era when breakthroughs in biology and intelligence are outpacing the culture's capacity to deal with the ethics," Tsien said, according to The Post. "There will be issues of access and who can afford it. Whether the social wealthy class will have the intellectual advantage over poor people, these are real questions coming down the road."

Printed with permission from Baptist Press