Are ‘designer babies’ closer than we think? Ethan Troy-Barnes finds out
The incumbent Pope has condemned it as “the obsessive search for the perfect child”; others regard it as merely the next stepping stone in humanity’s quest to command its
own destiny. With the advent of ever-improving genetic engineering techniques and gene therapies becoming commonplace in clinical practice, the emerging field of reprogenetics is set to pave the way for a new kind of child – one which has been genetically engineered to its parents’ exact specifications.
The ability to manipulate an embryo’s genetic makeup before it develops into a fully-fledged human being opens up a whole host of possibilities. A range of hereditary diseases and impairments would go the way of the dodo, dramatically cutting the rates of disability and mortality in future generations.
We could also improve upon or enhance existing abilities – producing children with augmented intelligence and super-human athletic ability. It may even be possible to add new traits to our children’s genomes: from photographic memory to a pair of gills, and anything in between.
So, how does one go about engineering the perfect child? The approach used at the moment to select the sex of an embryo involves simply artificially fertilizing a bunch of a female’s eggs with her partner’s sperm in a lab. The resulting embryos are then analysed, and one which has the desired sex chromosomes is re-implanted into the mother.This technology is not consigned to the far-flung future either. Already, California-based company The Fertility Institutes offer sex-selection to their clients, as well as claiming to soon be able to offer eye and hair colour selection with high levels of accuracy.
The problem with this method is that it is time consuming, and is restricted to traits already part of the parents’ genomes.
In the future, however, ‘germinal choice technology’ will become far more sophisticated. Scientists envisage being able to directly insert or remove specific genes or sets of genes from an embryo’s genome to make certain that is has desired genes for intelligence, or lacks unwanted disease-causing genes.
This can be achieved a number of ways. The first is called genetic recombination, which involves using a retrovirus as a means of inserting the genes, or simply firing the genes at the cell with a Philip K. Dick-esque ‘gene gun’. The problem with this technique is that the new DNA doesn’t always stick and, even when it does, it can result in some pretty nasty tumours through something called ‘insertional oncogenesis’.
Another option is the addition of a whole new artificial ‘designer chromosome’ to the child’s genome. This could act as a kind of customisable blank-slate, to which doctors could add the desired designer genes, and which would ensure retention of the added genes in the embryonic cells. That said, extra chromosomes are known to cause diseases or even spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), so this approach may not work in practice.
A further alternative is the use of epigenetics to control the genes expressed in the unborn child. Epigenetics refers the way a cell is able to turn on or off genes depending on when it wants to use them. Thus, we could use epigenetics to ‘turn off’ disease genes and ‘turn on’ desired genes in growing babies.
It’s important to realise that even at its most advanced, such technology would have its limitations. Inherently, it would be restricted by how much we know about what our DNA does.
Many traits are multifactorial, and are determined by more than one gene, so selecting the correct genes that will affect the desired trait may be easier said than done. Furthermore, said genes may also be involved in other traits – so it may be very difficult to alter one trait without ramifications for others.
Gene transfer in vitro (or in utero) also risks becoming germ line, which means that it affects the reproductive cells of the baby. Any gene therapy that has such negative implications for the offspring’s ability to reproduce is currently banned in the UK, causing a further source of controversy that surrounds the genetic debate.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that genes only form part of an individual. Many traits are determined to a large extent by our environment. A child can have all the genes for super-intelligence it likes, but if it’s not nurtured by loving parents and a good education system, it will never realise its potential.
That said, the potential behind ‘reproductive choice technology’ does highlight the especially contentious nature of its use. If indeed it is possible to ensure your unborn child is disease-free or carries the genes for perfect pitch, it is possible that such advantages will be available only to those rich enough to afford them: creating a new kind of class system based on genetic enhancements.
Speaking to the BBC, geneticist Professor Lee Silver explains “the problem with this technology is that it will disadvantage every child whose parents are unable to afford it… will our government, will our society which is controlled by the richest people of society, care about these diseases which are just floating around the lower class?”
Given our current rate of advancement, the question is not if we’ll be able to design our children, but simply to what extent and how soon. According to bioethics expert Dr Arthur Caplan “this is going to turn out to be one of the biggest issues in the next ten or fifteen years – the extent to which we design our babies, and who’s going to be able to call the shots on whether the technology gets used to do it.”