An academic from Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, has claimed we are only two years away from being able to create ‘ethically sound’ designer babies.
Gene editing risks are at an all time low meaning there are high levels of justification to use the technique on human embryos, claims Dr Kevin Smith.
Dr Smith also highlights the fact that genetically modified (GM) people could be morally justifiable within a few years, which in turn could assist in preventing certain diseases from being passed through generations as well as improving the quality of life once the GM baby reached an older age.
The process of gene editing can be very complex with scientists altering an organism’s DNA to help prevent diseases being spread, however using this technique on human DNA will always be a topic that will bring heated debate, with the theory that if the process gets passed into the wrong hands the reasons for conducting the practice could be changed, for instance helping families choose the colour of their baby’s eyes, hair and more.
‘The human germline is by no means perfect, with evolution having furnished us with rather minimal protection from diseases that tend to strike in our later years, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. GM techniques offer the prospect of protecting future people against these and other common disorders. This has previously been achieved to an extent in GM experiments on animals. If several common disorders could be avoided or delayed by genetically modifying humans, the average disease-free lifespan could be substantially extended.’
Yet however ethically sound the process may have been described as, there are worries that a revolution in genetic modification could begin and Dr Smith has warned there must be an ethical approach if there is any chance of winning the trust of the public.
‘Society is largely opposed to genetically modifying humans and the negative publicity generated by the ethically problematic first-ever production of GM babies in China last year was strongly criticized by most geneticists and ethicists, further hardening attitudes against the creation of so-called ”designer babies”.’
‘However, by delaying an ethically sound move towards a world where we can reduce genetic disease, we are failing those who suffer through disease and debilitating conditions. If such negative attitudes to biomedical innovation had prevailed in the 1970s, the development and use of IVF – a massively beneficial medical technology – would have been severely delayed, and indeed might never have come to fruition.’
A highly controversial topic of debate, gene-edited babies were born in China amongst fierce claims of law breaking. Twins Lulu and Nana were born in November 2018 thanks to Chinese Scientist Prof He Jiankui who was condemned by several researchers, bioethicists and medical professionals who claimed he acted illegally ‘in pursuit of fame and fortune’.
However this was not the first time scientists had edited the DNA in human embryos. In 2017, scientists in the United Kingdom were experimenting with human embryos that had been donated by IVF couples who no longer required them.
There are many claims to why genetically modified babies should be looked at with caution. Not only are there concerns about the potential side effects there are also ethical fears being raised, such as the chance for inequality becoming a bigger issue thanks to the wealthiest of people being able to produce genetically enhanced children, therefore increasing an already large gap between the poorest and richest people in the world. There are also concerns that long-term, potentially specific aspects to the human race could be eradicated completely.
Dr Smith has also stated that the latest studies have shown that the main way forward in the war against multiple disease-associated genes is to use genetic modification within an embryo. The human germline, which is cells that span across multiple generations, is ‘by no means perfect’ thanks to evolution giving precariously low levels of protection from diseases that are more prevalent in our older years.
‘GM techniques offer the prospect of protecting future people against these and other common disorders. This has previously been achieved to an extent in GM experiments on animals’
There have been many questions surrounding the ethical side of creating genetically modified babies with Dr Smith commenting they were ‘highly desirable’.
The theory that common disorders and diseases could be delayed, or even avoided altogether, resulting in the average human lifespan being ‘substantially extended’.
The doctor also questioned whether the delay in creating a world without genetic disease through genetic modification was failing those who currently suffer conditions that are not only debilitating but also life threatening.
If genetic modification on human embryos does become more common it is agreed that there will have to be safeguarding measures put in place, not just to protect the families involved, but also to protect the way that the technique is used in years to come.