How we get to designer babies

In the old days if a couple wanted a baby they would jump into bed together. Today we have all the techniques necessary to create designer babies.

Today’s mystery man is five foot ten inches. He has hazel eyes and light brown hair. But perhaps the most important attribute for his prospective customers is his resemblance to Matt Dillon.

Our mystery man is number 13,199 on a list of sperm donors offered by the California Cryobank.

In the old days if a couple wanted a baby they would jump into bed together and then hope for the best. But in the last forty years things have changed very rapidly indeed so that today ‘designer babies’ are not a fantasy but a reality.

Selecting sperm from a nice looking donor is just one way in which we can determine our offspring. Another company, GenePeeks, will analyse the sperm and eggs of prospective parents to predict the baby’s genome and thus its physical and other traits.

If Dad’s sperm is not looking so promising, perhaps 13,199’s might be better bet?

But, as a new book describes, far more sophisticated methods are now available.

If you still don’t believe that biotechnology is an extraordinary, powerful and scary revolution then read ‘GMO Sapiens, The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies’, by Paul Knoepfler, who is an Associate Professor at the University of California.

As he describes, we have all the techniques necessary to create designer babies and irreversibly change the course of human evolution. It is fascinating stuff and unearths an ethical minefield.

The old-fashioned approach

More on that in a moment, but first here is an early stage human embryo:


Source: wikimedia ekem

It is the result of the fusion of the female’s egg with the male sperm and these few cells, which contain a full set of DNA from both parents, go on to divide, multiply and turn into the functioning cells that constitute the human body.

Conception, I need hardly tell you, is normally the result of sexual intercourse.

There are a few steps in the process and today each one of those steps can be achieved artificially.

Take the fusing of the sperm with the egg. In 1978 Louise Brown took a unique place in history. She was the first person conceived in the laboratory.

Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards took eggs from mother Lesley Brown, fertilised them in the laboratory and then placed the resulting embryo back in her womb. After five years of failed attempts one of these embryos became baby Louise.

Today this is a standard procedure to help women who have difficulty conceiving, and millions of ‘test-tube’ babies are alive and well.

Six years before the birth of Louise, Edwards had, with the American lawyer David Sharpe, written

“Further developments that also depend on the growth of early human embryos perhaps contain the most controversial issues. These developments involve not simply identifying sex or genetic defects, but rather modifying or adding to the embryo itself.”

This was prescient. It is simple enough to distinguish male embryos from female embryos and this allows parents the choice of a boy or a girl.

But what is new is the ability to ‘identify’ and ‘modify’ genetic defects.

Hardly a day goes by without a researcher finding a gene that is associated with and may determine a particular outcome.

If you have a mutated CFTR gene you are liable to get cystic fibrosis. If a woman has the BRCA1 gene she has an above average risk of breast cancer.

Given these links would it not be nice to check these genes and correct them before they cause harm?

With gene therapy we can attempt to alter the genes of children or adults and it can be very successful.

But why wait until then? Why not edit the genes of embryonic cells before they go into the womb?

CRISPR changed everything

We can now sequence the whole genome of embryonic cells very quickly and accurately. But what has really changed the game is the CRISPR method of gene editing.

Simply this means that if a gene contains the DNA sequence TCAG and we want to change it to TCCG then CRISPR allows us to do so with accuracy.

With these techniques we can contemplate genetic engineering of embryonic cells, changing the fate of the baby hopefully for the better.

Now consider this. Last December scientists from Imperial College London uncovered two networks of genes that appear to be linked to human intelligence. Said the author of the published study, Dr Michael Johnson,

“What’s exciting about this is that…..potentially we can manipulate a whole set of genes whose activity is linked to human intelligence. Our research suggests that it might be possible to work with these genes to modify intelligence…..That is only a theoretical possibility at the moment – we have just taken a first step along that road.”

So while we are editing out the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, why not edit a few other genes to give the child above average intelligence?

In his 1932 novel ‘Brave New World’ Aldous Huxley described a society in which natural reproduction was abolished.

Instead human embryos were raised in hatcheries. Alpha and Beta foetuses were allowed to develop relatively naturally to produce superior humans, but Gamma, Delta and Epsilon foetuses were chemically treated to stunt their intelligence and physical growth and create a human underclass.

That seemed pretty far-fetched at the time but we are creeping towards this reality.

We already genetically modify plants, and we grow them and eat them. We genetically modify animals whether in the cause of medical research or to serve the food chain.

We have cloned animals, famously Dolly the sheep. Cloning removes all of the DNA from an adult cell and places it in an egg cell. This develops into an embryo and ultimately a live creature that is identical to that from which the DNA was taken.

The Aquadvantage salmon has recently become the first GM animal approved for human consumption and genetically modified mosquitoes have been released into the wild in an attempt to beat the zika virus.

A slippery slope?

Last year the UK government approved ‘3 person families.’ Here the DNA of the parents is placed in a cell that includes elements called mitochondria taken from a donor.

Crucially this mitochondria does itself contain DNA, although probably not of the sort that affects traits such as appearance or personality.

The rationale for this procedure is to avoid diseases that spring from unhealthy mitochondria, but the fact is that children conceived in this way will have DNA from three people.

They will not, though, be the first. As Knoepfler mentions 23 children were born in this way in the USA in the 1990s before the practice was banned.

The $64,000 question now is whether scientists will attempt to genetically modify a human embryo and see it right through to a live birth.

Again, we are edging ever closer.

Last year Chinese researchers reported that they had genetically modified human embryos, and earlier this year British researchers were given permission to do the same thing.

In both of these cases the stated justification is research into embryo development, and there are laws that prevent these embryos from ever becoming actual human beings.

But there are not laws in every country, nor is every scientist necessarily scrupulous.

Remember that by editing the reproductive (‘germ line’) cells we would not only affect the resulting human, but all future offspring of that human down the generations.

This raises the most profound questions both practical and ethical.

Although there is a handful of diseases, notably Huntington’s, that are caused by one identifiable genetic mutation most are considerably more complex and, indeed, beyond our comprehension today.

Whether we are concerned with a disease or something desirable like blonde hair the notion that there is direct linear causality between a gene and the resulting trait could hardly be further from the truth.

As Nessa Carey describes in another excellent book ‘Junk DNA: A Journey through the Dark Matter of the Genome’ our physical and mental traits are the result of the interplay between functional genes, regulatory genes, and external factors of upbringing and the environment.

This makes it almost impossible to select for a desired trait with any confidence, while any gene editing could have unexpected and unwelcome consequences.

A child born from a genetically engineered embryo will have traits, good or bad, that he or she would otherwise not have had. The child has no say in the matter and will pass his or her genes on to later generations.

This is just one of the ethical issues.

From the matter of what constitutes a perfect human being, through issues of discrimination to the creation of a master race with its uncomfortable echoes of the eugenics movement of the last century, the notion of designer babies is profoundly disturbing.

Professor Knoepfler also argues that it is unnecessary.

Rather than editing genes in the embryo, he suggests that we could simply analyse all embryos and discard any that posed a threat.

This is called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, but while it preserves the sanctity of human creation, it nowhere near offers the same range of possibilities as gene editing.

We will have to wait and see what happens next. But the underlying message of this book is that our ability to manipulate life, in particular through gene editing, is now scarily powerful.

‘Surprisingly few people’, says Knoepfler, ‘appear to fathom how close we are to the point where actual GM people might be produced.’

Surprisingly few people, I might add, have much idea about the biotechnology revolution. But you do!

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