Biden’s Top Science Nominee Advocated ‘Preimplantation Genetic Testing’ to Decide Which Human Embryo to Keep

Terence P. Jeffrey | March 2, 2021 | 3:25pm EST
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Eric Lander, nominee for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, speaks after being nominated by President Joe Biden at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Jan. 16, 2021. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
Eric Lander, nominee for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, speaks after being nominated by President Joe Biden at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Jan. 16, 2021. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

( - Eric Lander, whom President Joe Biden has nominated to be director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, has opposed actually editing the genes of human embryos while repeatedly advocating as an alternative to gene editing the creation of embryos through in vitro fertilization (IVF), using preimplantation diagnostics (PGD) to determine whether an embryo has a genetic defect or disease and then implanting in the mother’s womb only those who do not.

The online Oxford English dictionary defines “eugenics” as the “study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable.”

The dictionary provides the following sentence as one example of how the word is used: “In the United States in recent years, interest in eugenics has centered around genetic screening.”

Creating human beings through IVF and then subjecting them to PGD is a form of eugenics that would determine which newly conceived human beings should continue living based on another human being’s judgement of their genetic worthiness.

Huntington’s disease, for example, is one genetic disease that can be detected in an embryo created through IVF and then subjected to PGD before someone decides whether or not to implant that newly conceived human in the mother’s womb. Woody Guthrie, the famous folksinger who wrote the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land,” suffered from Huntington’s disease, according to PBS.

Had he been conceived through IVF and subjected to PGD he might have been denied any life beyond the petri dish in which he was created.

Lander summarized the procedure he has in mind—and that he says many of his colleagues at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard having actually used to choose their offspring--in a January 2020 podcast with Preet Bharara that was posted online under the headline "Playing God (with Eric Lander)."

“You know, if you want to prevent genetic diseases, you can already do that in many, many ways,” Lander told Bharara, who served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York during the Obama Administration.

“The main reason that children with genetic disease are born to families today, is the family never knew they were carriers,” Landers said. “If you really cared about that, you’d start with genetic screening. And we don’t have routine genetic screening.

“Beyond that, there’s something called in vitro fertilization with pre-implantation genetic diagnostics,” he said. “That is, you do standard in vitro fertilization, you fertilize a bunch of eggs with some sperm, and you let them grow up a little bit in the Petri plate and you pull off one cell, and you ask, when you genetically, when you genotype that cell, ‘Is this embryo carrying the genetic disease or not?’ And you just re-implant those that don’t carry the genetic disease.

“So,” Lander said, “I have many colleagues even here at the Broad, who are carrying a genetic disease and they have healthy children who didn’t inherit it because they took advantage of in vitro fertilization with genetic diagnostics to just pick the embryos that wouldn’t inherit it.”

This is a screen capture of the top of the webpage featuring Preet Bharara's podcast interview with Eric Lander.
This is a screen capture of the top of the webpage featuring Preet Bharara's podcast interview with Eric Lander.

In December 2015, Lander delivered a presentation at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing.  At this summit, he made clear that he opposed actually altering the genes of human embryos but suggested IVF and PGD as an alternative for parents who were tested and discovered to be carrying a genetic disease.

“The truth is—and this should be said here—if we really care about helping parents avoid cases of genetic disease, germline editing is not the first, second, third, or fourth thing that we should be thinking about,” Lander said in his written presentation to the summit.

“What we should be thinking about is that the vast majority of people who have children with a recessive disease were never aware they were carriers,” he wrote. “Most such recessive disease arises unexpected in a family. The most important thing is to make genetic diagnostics available so they could know they are carriers and be able to avail themselves of PGD. This would be the most effective option both from a societal basis and from helping the largest number of parents.”

“With rare Mendelian diseases, the vast majority of situations can currently be addressed by in vitro fertilization and PGD,” Lander said. “There are some compelling cases, although they are rare, and if we wish to avoid devastating genetic diseases, the best thing to do from a population point of view, from a public health point of view, from a caring-about-parents-point-of-view, is to make sure that parents have easy access to genetic testing so that they know that they are at risk and can use conventional PGD.”

Lander also published an essay in the July 2, 2015 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. It carried this headline: “Brave New Genome.” Here Lander discussed the “morality” of dealing with human genetics and once again stated his opposition to actually editing the genes of human embryos.

Yet here, again, he also suggested that rather than edit human embryos it would be better to create embryos outside the womb, test them through preimplantation genetic diagnostics (PGD), and implant only those that lacked the genetic defect you were seeking to avoid.

“The final issue concerns morality—what’s right and wrong and how we ought to live as a society,” wrote Lander. “Although scientists may be reluctant to debate ethics, we have a responsibility to do so and insights to offer. How would routine genome editing change our world? Would we come to regard our children as manufactured products? Would marketers shape genetic fashions? Would the ‘best’ genomes go to the most privileged? If we cross this threshold, it’s hard to see how we could ever return.”

Lander continued in this essay to argue that the editing of human embryos should be banned--with a “possible exception” and “at least for the foreseeable future.”

“The discussions that will begin in the fall may solidify a broad international consensus that germline editing should be banned—with the possible exception of correcting severe monogenic disease genes, in the few cases in which there is no alternative,” Lander wrote.

“For my own part, I see much wisdom in such a position, at least for the foreseeable future,” he said. “A ban could always be reversed if we become technically proficient, scientifically knowledgeable, and morally wise enough and if we can make a compelling case. But authorizing scientists to make permanent changes to the DNA of our species is a decision that would require broad societal understanding and consent.

“It has been only about a decade since we first read the human genome,” Lander said. “We should exercise great caution before we begin to rewrite it.”

In that “Brave New Genome” essay, Lander explained the difference between “genome editing” (which he opposed) and selecting embryos through PGD (which he did not). He did so with a specific reference to Huntington disease—the disease, which as mentioned, afflicted Woody Guthrie.

“The most common argument for germline editing concerns preventing devastating monogenic diseases, such as Huntington’s disease,” Lander wrote. “Though avoiding the roughly 3600 rare monogenic disorders caused by known disease genes is a compelling goal, the rationale for embryo editing largely evaporates under careful scrutiny.

“Genome editing would require making IVF embryos, using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to identify those that would have the disease, repairing the gene, and implanting the embryo,” Lander continued.

“Yet,” he said, “it would be easier and safer simply to use PGD to identify and implant the embryos that aren’t at risk: the proportion is high in the typical cases of a parent heterozygous for a dominant disease (50%) or two parents who are carriers for a recessive disease (75%). To reduce the incidence of monogenic disease, what’s needed most is not embryo editing, but routine genetic testing so that the many couples who don’t know they are at risk can avail themselves of PGD.”

As early as 1999, Lander similarly argued against the genetic editing of embryos but for the use of in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnostics as a way of choosing embryos that would not inherit a genetic defect from their parents.

On Dec. 17, 1999, he taped an episode of “One on One With John McLaughlin” that was broadcast on the weekend of Jan. 1-2, 2000. In that interview, Lander appeared alongside Dr. Francis Collins, who is currently director of the National Institutes of Health but was then director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

At one point in the discussion, according to the Federal News Service transcript of the program, McLaughlin said: “Now we enter the area where there is real sensitivity, and that is altering genes to prevent inherited diseases from being passed along to one’s children.”

McLaughlin asked Collins: “Now tell me about that, and what do you see ahead?”

“Well, the big ethical dilemma is whether that is a pathway we should go down,” Collins responded.

“No, I don’t want to hear about that now,” McLaughlin said. “What I want to hear about is what do you foresee coming within the immediate future, that is the next 10 or 15 years.”

“Well,” said Collins, “I think these are connected, because I think the ethical dilemmas are so strong that we won’t do this in the next 10 or 15 years; we will not interfere with the human sequence that’s going to be passed to a future generation because we don’t know what we are doing.”

Lander then added in agreement: “We certainly better not do that. If you today want to deal with the transmission of a genetic trait to an offspring, there is a choice of in vitro fertilization and selecting which embryo to reimplant. That’s a procedure that’s already used.”

“Well,” McLaughlin countered, “you’re talking about a physical characteristic. I’m not talking about that.”

“No, I’m talking about genetic disease,” said Lander.

“Suppose you have a genetic disease and you’re going to transmit it to your offspring,” Lander continued. “What some people do today is they can fertilize in vitro—out of the body—do a genetic test before they decide which embryo to reimplant, and then select to reimplant the embryo that didn’t pick up that genetic defect. And I think that’s a much less ethically troubling way to approach the question.”

In the March 14, 2019 edition of Nature, Lander was the lead author among an international group of scientists who called for a moratorium on editing human genes—while pointing to IVF and PGD as an alternative. Their article was entitled: “Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing.”

“We call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing—that is, changing inheritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children,” Lander and his colleagues wrote.

“Some argue, especially in the popular press, that germline editing is urgently needed to stop children from being born with severe genetic diseases,” Lander and the other scientists said.

“But couples who know they are at risk of transmitting a severe disease-causing mutation already have safe ways to avoid doing so,” Lander and his colleagues wrote. “They can use in vitro fertilization (IVF) in conjunction with preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), prenatal testing, sperm donors, egg donors, embryo donors or adoption.

“In particular,” Lander and his colleagues wrote, “use of IVF followed by genetic screening of the embryos to ensure that only unaffected ones are transferred to the person’s uterus, guarantees that a couple will not have children with the genetic disease.”

On Jan. 28, sent Lander—through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—three questions about what he had said on that 2000 episode of “One on One With John McLaughlin.” In addition to asking him if he contested what the Federal News Service transcript said he had said, asked: ‘Do you still believe it is ethically acceptable to engage in eugenics through in vitro fertilization by doing a ‘genetic test’ on human embryos created outside the womb, separating those that have a ‘genetic defect’ from those that do not, and only implanting in a mother’s womb—and, thus, allowing to continue in life--an embryo ‘that didn’t pick up that genetic defect’?” also asked: “What would you do with the unused human embryos that were determined to have a ‘defect’ and thus denied implantation in their mother’s womb?”

The Office of Science and Technology Policy responded by stating that Lander “cannot” answer questions until after he has been confirmed by the Senate.

On Feb. 25, followed up by sending Dr. Lander transcripts of the things he had said about choosing embryos through in vitro fertilization and preimplantation diagnostics on Preet Bharara’s podcast, at the December 2015 International Summit on Human Gene Editing, and in his New England Journal of Medicine article, “Brave New Genome.” then repeated the same questions it had asked Lander on Jan. 28.

It also asked Lander for “any comments you would like to make about this issue and your statements in defense of choosing babies through in vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnostics.”

Lander did not respond--even after had repeatedly re-emailed him its written inquiry via his email at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, sent copies of the inquiry to the OSTP press and engagement email addresses, and spoken twice by phone with the Office of Science and Technology to alert them that the emailed inquiry had been sent.

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the Catholic Church to which President Biden belongs, approved the “Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions,” which was published by the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This instruction specifically condemned preimplantation diagnosis, which it described as “the expression of a eugenic mentality.”

“Preimplantation diagnosis is a form of prenatal diagnosis connected with techniques of artificial fertilization in which embryos formed in vitro undergo genetic diagnosis before being transferred into a woman’s womb,” it said. “Such diagnosis is done in order to ensure that only embryos free from defects or having the desired sex or other particular qualities are transferred.”

“Preimplantation diagnosis – connected as it is with artificial fertilization, which is itself always intrinsically illicit – is directed toward the qualitative selection and consequent destruction of embryos, which constitutes an act of abortion,” it said. “Preimplantation diagnosis is therefore the expression of a eugenic mentality that ‘accepts selective abortion in order to prevent the birth of children affected by various types of anomalies. Such an attitude is shameful and utterly reprehensible, since it presumes to measure the value of a human life only within the parameters of ‘normality’ and physical well-being, thus opening the way to legitimizing infanticide and euthanasia as well.’”

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