Let’s Design a Baby

It was in 2012 when I first wrote about genetic engineering and designer babies and since then much has changed. Then. just 5 years ago, the modern science of gene manipulation was at a relatively early stage in its development. The pioneering work of genetic engineering alongside the world genome project, was only just coming to fruition.

Today, as I was browsing and wandering around the internet, I read more about developments and realised that the concerns I was then expressing were becoming a closer reality. Research and technology have moved forward faster than no one, other than scientists working in the area could have imagined.

When I first touched on this topic I started with the words of Bob Edwards, an embryologist and IVF pioneer: ‘Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.’

Today there seems nothing overly controversial with that opinion but not so long ago the testing of the foetus was limited to specific problems and gender.

When Annie and I were having children, pre-natal testing took a variety of forms, from ultrasound scans to amniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or testing foetal cells in the cervical mucus or maternal bloodstream.

I assume that these haven’t changed, and the tests are carried out at a variety of times throughout the pregnancy to check the development, age, and any specific impairments of the foetus.

These were tests Annie had when she was pregnant with our children and fortunately, we didn’t have to face any difficult decisions. I am not sure if I can remember if we talked about how we would react to an unfavourable result.  It was far too difficult a conversation.

Pre-implantation testing, or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), is usually coupled with IVF as the woman’s egg is fertilised in vitro. At an early stage of embryo development, there are three types of cells that are available for analysis: polar bodies, blastomere cells and trophectoderm cells. Of these, the common practice is to test a blastomere cell before the embryo divides beyond the 8-cell stage and just before, theoretically, able to develop into a complete person.

The point that medical practitioners make (in 2012) is that these tests are screening for specific illness: ‘Contemporary clinical genetics is aimed at preventing and treating genuine illness, rather than ‘purifying the population’ or eliminating racial and social minorities.’  (Tom Shakespeare)

A 2015 article in The Guardian spelt out the future. Over our very recent history the technology of DNA editing, with Crispr technology has moved ahead at a rate we could never have imagined.  ‘The new genome-editing technology has the potential to eliminate genetic diseases by making changes to our DNA that will pass down the generations.’

That prospect tantalises Tony Perry (a molecular embryologist at the University of Bath) because it raises the possibility of generating offspring that carry either no risk or a reduced risk of some genetic diseases. Perry suggests it might one day be possible to correct a harmful mutation …  and stop someone inheriting that predisposition to breast cancer. “You will be able to eradicate it from your descendants,” he says.

Crispr can be thought of as a pair of molecular scissors guided by a satnav. The scissors are a DNA-cutting enzyme; they snip at a precise point in the cell’s DNA specified by researchers using a customised guide molecule, a single short piece of RNA, DNA’s chemical cousin. The DNA-cutting enzyme is known as Cas9, hence the technique is often written Crispr-Cas9. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/may/10/crispr-genome-editing-dna-upgrade-technology-genetic-disease

Since then we better understand DNA, and the technologies have advanced becoming ever smarter. What was once science fiction is now close to reality. It was just a month ago that Chinese scientists reported they had cloned monkeys, the first primate cloning.

Every scientist who explains their work is always keen to stress that the work is undertaken to manage, remove, or eliminate dreadful diseases that are often passed on because of genetic issues.

That is a worthy and totally appropriate use of science and as our understanding of the human genome and manipulation of genes increases, so very soon many other treatments will become available, and it may not be just for genetically caused illness.

It was Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, whose theories on natural selection had just gained broad acceptance, who, in 1883, coined the phrase eugenics. and by the turn of the century, and right through to WW2, many governments advocated the eugenics movement.

It was most widely discussed and acted on before WW1. In the USA over 64,000 people were sterilised as ‘imbeciles’ on the basis that they were unfit to bring up and support a new family.  The USA was not alone. It was a global movement, culminating in the atrocious activities of Josef Mengele and Nazi Germany.

But eugenics didn’t finish with the war. Sweden sterilised more people (62,000 between 1934 and 1975) than any other European country after Nazi Germany. Eugenics in the 20th century was government sponsored.  In the jargon, it is known as coercive eugenics.

Now we are entering a new world where it is the choice of individual parents, or more likely the to-be-mother, and not States or governments to decide on the skills and attributes of their children.

Time for a definition: Eugenics, noun, the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

The UK and other governments are trying to maintain control over how these technologies are used. The Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority are the UK’s watchdog. While today, gene manipulation is only allowed for disease cures, they are pushing against a tide of technology.

There will soon be pressure to use the technologies to a modify embryos to chose physical and maybe even emotional characteristics. Maybe science already knows how? We need to resist the temptation and think carefully about the consequences.