Would You Like To Have A Beautiful And Intelligent Baby?

Designer babies by genome editing is on the way once the ethical problems have been sorted out. Caution is always required before embarking on unknown scientific projects, lest it turn out like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. It has been so before the advent of Test Tube babies or In vitro Fertilisation (IVF).  The first Test Tube baby in Oldham near Manchester, Louise Brown is 44 years old on July 25 2022. She is hale and hearty, and slightly plump. It’s said that this brave new world of ‘genetically modified’ babies would constitute quite a leap from the type of IVF that brought Louise Brown in this world.

By editing the genetic make of your child before birth ie the embryo, you could choose the height of your baby, the colour of eyes or hair and many other features. More importantly, your children could be free from inherited diseases. A geneticist in 1997 said: “We have enough imperfection built in already. Your child does not need anymore.”

In July 2018, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report that opened for dialogue to change the British law in future in order that parents could use genetic editing to “influence genetic characteristics of their child”. Scientists in the council concluded that it could be “morally permissible to genetically engineer human embryos.

I believe designer babies or genetically engineered human beings will be required in future, now that human evolution has come to a standstill, and nature is not going to alter us anymore. Humans will no more be influenced by the extremes of environment to which they had to adapt for survival while those who couldn’t, perished. Humans now take control of the environment. We must make ourselves better humans to replace modern humans that are weak and diseased, following strict guidelines made by parents and scientists.

Dr Patrick Robert at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, says in their research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in July 2018, that “Not only did Homo sapiens [the only surviving human species] survive in harsh landscapes but thrived, learning to become ‘generalist specialists’. Many members of our homo species, including Neanderthals and Homo erectus emerged from Africa three million years ago, and inhabited Spain, Georgia, China, Indonesia, and Britain 700,000 years ago.

Previously, researchers thought early Homo sapiens had stayed close to the coast or the savannahs, not reaching the extreme environments until around 15,000 years ago. But recent evidence has shown that humans were in tougher climates far earlier. While other hominids stayed in their environments, Homo sapiens spread out and by at least 45,000 years ago were rapidly colonising the world, managing to cross the deserts of northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and north-west India.

Prof Karen Yeung, chairman of Nuffield Council’s working party on genome editing and human reproduction, says, “While the idea would be to do so primarily to prevent a child from inheriting genetic diseases, scientists did not rule out cosmetic use to design a baby the way the parents want. While there is still uncertainty over the sort of things genome editing might be able to achieve […] we have concluded that the potential use of genome editing to influence the characteristics of future generations is not unacceptable.”

Following the report there will be a public dialogue in a conference on the issue in December 2018, whether they should amend the British law in the light of the latest technological possibilities, such as Crispr, a tool that works to snip away bad DNA and replace it with healthy code.

 Currently, genetic editing of human embryo is allowed only for 14 days in British law, and strictly for research. The embryo cannot be implanted into a womb and must be destroyed. Parents are now able to use the process of screening developed in the 80s, known as ‘pre-implantation genetic diagnosis’ (PGD) that enables those with a serious genetic disease to avoid passing to their children.

PGD help to identify and locate genetic defects in early embryos that were conceived through IVF.  The IVF procedure is carried out by the removal of one or two cells when the embryo is at a specific stage in development.

This PGD procedures allow scientists to identify mutated or damaged genes associated with diseases in the embryos by using a technique called ‘in-situ-hybridisation’ (ISH).  This technique can identify specific nucleic acid sequences on a gene that can help to detect genetic abnormalities. It can thus help select good traits before implanting embryos with genes that have serious diseases or disabilities. It can select eg high intelligence or increased muscle mass. Overall. this procedure of PGD to select for a better trait is referred to the creation of a ‘designer baby’. The first designer babies were created in 1989 and born in 1990 in America. As the modern techniques improve, it is believed that in the next 20 years, parent could choose a variety of desirable babies.

Dagan Wells at the University of Oxford, who pioneered the new technique of IVF, once said:

“If you take a woman in her early 30s, around a quarter of her embryos will be abnormal. For a woman in her early 40s, it’s around three-quarters. The problem is that many abnormal embryos look normal under a microscope. We need better ways of working out which embryo is the one that we should implant.”  Scientist Robin Lovell-Badge at The Francis Crick Institute, near St Pancreas International Railway Station, next to Kings Cross station in north London, says: “The technique of crisp is extremely effective  to study the role of specific genes in early development and causes of miscarriage. Scientists in other countries have gone further. There have been studies in China and the US, where they have tried to repair genes carrying mutations.” There are new techniques developed that might, in future, be able to cut a disease carrying gene from an embryo’s DNA before it is implanted in the womb, he says.

There are of course, opponents as usual. Scientist Dusko Ilic at King’s College, London has this thing to say: “People are afraid that crispr can make ‘designer babies, but there is no characteristic like height or eye colour that is based on just one gene.” His opposition is based on his understanding that, “We won’t know the consequences of genome editing before implantation.” He warns, citing a study by Welcome Sanger Institute, which found the technology is far more dangerous than previously thought. The technique, he said, caused extensive mutations in the DNA, which could lead to important genes being switched on and off, or potentially leading to serious conditions.

 On the other hand, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Centre for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University, US, says he is full of hope. Last year, he used Crispr to target a mutation in nuclear DNA that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a common genetic heart disease. It was the first-time scientists have successfully tested the method on donated clinical-quality human eggs.

In the UK, though no genetically modified embryo has yet been transplanted in a womb, the first babies with the DNA of three people, where the DNA of a second woman is used to replace a faulty code, are due later this year.

Some diseases are inherited from parents to their children since genes are passed on spontaneously. Also, any changes in the DNA within a gene is also passed on. It may show up in a child of unaffected parents, for the first time. The common inherited diseases we know are Down’s

Syndrome, Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy and Cystic fibrosis to name a few. Diabetes that requires insulin (Type 1) may also be inherited, especially if both parents are diabetic.

It is said that the European psyche, including British is still scarred by the horrors of genocidal eugenics of the Nazi regime that planned to create a master Aryan race. So, they need a thorough discussion of new bioethics. But the ethics and consequently the law makes it sure that there will be no inequality, GM-babies are a sure way to a better society with more able people.

Robin Lovell Badge, FRS, British scientist at the Crick Institute is famous, for his discovery of the SRY gene located on the short branch of the Y-chromosome that is responsible for determining humans into male sex when the genes in an embryo are making decisions whether to sex it into male or female. He says: ” There are a few individuals who say it’s a slippery slope. It’s a stupid argument because every technology can be used for good and evil. Sending children to private schools or undergoing cosmetic surgery amounts to the same thing.”

I agree with him. I’ve always said that an aeroplane is a good thing to fly people from one place to the other. It is also bad as it dropped atom bombs in Japan during WWII.

Dr IM Singh

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