There’s lots of room for error in the human body. Mistakes, imperfections and genetic problems can pop up even before birth. Now, snipping away some of those problems is quickly becoming a scientific possibility. While some are crying that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World of designer babies is upon us, others say we have a responsibility to help save lives.
The technique’s called “germline editing,” as in editing the germination line of traits passed down from one generation to the next. It’s a literal cut and paste function for life: opening up the possibility to snip out specific bits of DNA inside babies before they’re born. Bacteria do this in nature: using enzymes to zero in on unwanted DNA and throw it out. By going into humans in the embryonic stage and deleting very specific proteins, the fix could do things like make babies resistant to HIV, let people who would be blind see, and reduce inherited diseases.
Chinese researchers have used the cuts on embryos in the lab (publishing their results in April 2015), but found their “edits” were just not precise enough to try out on humans yet. Problems could include splitting the embryo, which no one would condone. But cows, pigs and other animals are already being born using the snip, cut, and paste technique to breed more resistance to diseases or get rid of things like unneeded horns for the cows. The technique’s also drawn favor with drug company Astra Zeneca for research, and with Bill Gates, who invested in genome editing company Editas Medicine.
This week at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing, experts from around the globe are debating the merits and potential pitfalls of turning the technique loose on human embryos. With no United Nations of genetics, and no governing body to weigh in, people are using the week’s conference as a platform to voice both concerns and support.
Nearly half (46%) of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center say changing a baby’s genetic characteristics to reduce risk of disease is okay, but they are concerned about the idea of ‘designer babies’ (with 83% saying changing a baby to make it ‘more intelligent’ takes things too far).
Dr. George Daley who studies stem cell development and disease at Harvard says those ‘designer’ babies are unlikely. He says complex traits like intelligence and courage, “involve dramatic interactions between genes and the environment,” not just genetics, and stressed the need to “develop oversight, so we’re comfortable drawing the line.”
The Center for Genetics and Society and the Council for Responsible Genetics both strongly oppose changing human germline cells, saying the technique would create genetically modified humans.
Stem cell biologist Paul Knoepfler, author of the forthcoming GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designed Babies echoes: “You would be literally designing and producing a new type of baby via the same sort of technology that is used to make a [genetically modified] tomato, mouse, or monkey.”
And Sarah Gray is a mother who lost one of her twins to a rare genetic disorder:
As impassioned debate continues, the technique is rapidly improving. Just this week, the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT announced they’ve re-engineered the DNA editing protein (known as CRISPR-Cas9) to be more precise in its ‘cuts’. However, this isn’t something to be taken lightly. This this cut-and-paste program for human DNA comes with no ‘undo’ button for future generations.
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