In his 2016 book The End of Sex, Professor Henry Greely of Stanford University predicted that couples wishing to have babies would soon be able to dispense with the business of having sex.
I was reminded of this the other night when watching Louis Theroux’s documentary about Open Adoption. At one point we saw a man and his wife walking out of a hospital carrying a new born baby girl.
But this baby had in fact been born to a different couple, who had agreed in advance to hand her over to the family who were desperate for a daughter (and were happy to pay $40,000 to buy this one).
This commercial transaction was not though what Greely had in mind. Instead he described how it is possible to induce stem cells to become egg and sperm cells. He described how these can be united through In Vitro Fertilisation.
Once an embryo formed he suggested that it would be subject to a “pre implantation genetic diagnosis” to see whether the resulting child would suffer any adversity, and if that box was ticked the embryo could then be planted into a willing womb and brought to birth.
A year later A Crack in Creation, written by Professor Jennifer Doudna from UC Berkeley, was published. Doudna is credited with the discovery of the CRISPR gene editing technique, a tool that makes it possible to alter the DNA bases of A, T, C and G with unprecedented speed and accuracy, and consequently disable or alter the function of a gene.
To Greely’s vision this adds a fresh capability. Rather than selecting embryos for implantation based on their genomes, we can actually edit the genomes of those embryos, placing into the womb only those designed to our satisfaction.
As both Greely and Doudna have pointed out, all the necessary scientific techniques exist to produce designer babies so the question is – should we be doing so?
Last week Professor He Jiankui from Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology jumped the gun.
He claims to have edited the genes of two embryos so that the resultant children – baby girls called Lulu and Nanna – would, unlike their fathers, be resistant to HIV.
He describes this as “a beautiful and wholesome gift”, while denying that Lulu and Nanna are “designer babies”.
But while they might not have been engineered for blue eyes or higher intelligence, the girls certainly are designer babies, in that they have been specifically designed for a chosen purpose.
So this is the Heritable Germline Editing that is considered so monstrous by the majority. A line has been crossed.
The first issue is whether we should actually believe Professor He. There have been numerous examples of Asian academics making unsubstantiated claims for the glory of either themselves or the motherland.
Two years ago Professor Chunyu Han catapulted to fame in China when he published a paper that described a new gene-editing system.
He was elected vice president of Hebei Association for Science and Technology, given the title of “the most beautiful teacher in Hebei” and awarded a $32m government grant. When others tried but failed to replicate the results of his experiments his star quickly fell.
Neither the hospital where the babies were supposed to have been born or The Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen admit any knowledge of He’s claim, made via a YouTube video.
In the absence of any independent verification I would treat He’s claim with a large dose of salt, but even if this is fraudulent it is probably only a matter of time before designer babies really are born, as is indirectly acknowledged by last week’s Second International Summit on Genome Editing.
This is a follow up to a 2015 conference held in Washington, after which the USA’s National Academy of Sciences issued a paper, “Human Genome Editing Science and Ethics Governance”.
This represented an international consensus on the use of gene editing and rehearsed the various ethical concerns.
Is it fair to impose genetic change on individuals who have no say in the decision? Is it fair to advantage some children but not others? Is it fair to stigmatise dwarfism, for example, by explicitly trying to edit it away?
However, in spite of all this the report did not completely prohibit germline editing once and for all.
Instead, it called for a public debate, leaving the door open to “converting genes to versions that are prevalent in the population and are known to be associated with ordinary health, with little or no evidence of adverse effects”.
Jennifer Doudna, too, is open-minded.
“In the world of medicine,” she argues, “the line between natural and unnatural blurs to the point of disappearing…In my mind the distinction between natural and unnatural is a false dichotomy, and if it prevents us from alleviating human suffering, it is also a dangerous one.”
“I don’t believe,” she continues, “there is an ethical defence for banning germline modifications outright, nor do I think we can justifiably prevent parents from using CRISPR to improve their chances of having a healthy, genetically related child, so long as the methods are safe and offered in an equitable manner.”
It will be interesting to see where the consensus lies after this latest conference, but the danger is that the science will simply run ahead of public opinion and researchers such as Professor He will take matters into their own hands.
I will not exaggerate our knowledge of genetics. Only a handful of traits, such as cystic fibrosis, can be traced unequivocally to the functioning of a single gene and resistance to HIV is not definitely one of them.
Most traits appear to be due to the interplay of more than one gene, while we know little about the role of so-called junk DNA or of the epigenetic factors that turn on or off the expression of genes. In altering one gene Professor He may have set off all sorts of unpredictable consequences for Lulu and Nanna later in their lives.
But genetics is the subject of a gigantic international research effort, the like of which has never been seen before, and progress is extremely rapid.
In the spheres of plant cultivation and animal breeding, where moral and ethical scruples carry much less weight, genetic engineering is already the standard.
To quote Doudna again, “Scientists have succeeded in bringing the primordial process of the evolution of life fully under human control. Using powerful biotechnology tools to tinker with DNA inside living cells, scientists can now manipulate and rationally modify the genetic code that defines every species on the planet.”
This is the basis of the new industrial revolution.
Although few seem to be aware of it, biotechnology is changing the way we live, the products we consume and it may permanently change the elemental matter of producing babies.
For smart investors who can get their heads around the science it is also making fortunes.