The sci-fi movies, pop culture, and even novels have embraced stories around ‘modified humans’ in dystopian societies. Parents could choose to eliminate defective genes even before the baby is born and confer immunity to certain diseases. The result is a baby who is ‘designed’ to be better than the rest. As fascinating as it may sound, do ‘designer babies’ exist and is it even ethical?
Read this MomJunction post to learn more about designer babies, the ethical implications, and more.
What Is A Designer Baby?
‘Designer baby’ is an infant born after performing interventions in its pre-implantation embryo stage to influence the characteristics or traits the child might possess after birth (1).
The advancement in genetic engineering and assisted reproductive technologies (ART), has made it possible to screen embryos for genetic disorders before implantation during in vitro fertilization. Using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), doctors can identify embryos that may carry the defective gene (2). The defective gene can be altered, resulting in a genetically-modified baby. Such infants are called designer babies since they have been ‘designed’ through gene alteration.
You may probably find the idea of a designer baby a bit far-fetched. But did you know, the process has already been implemented?
Is World’s First Designer Baby Already a Reality?
Yes. There have been a couple of controversial instances where there was a creation of a designer baby.
- Adam Nash: Adam Nash was born in the US in August 2000 and is considered the ‘world’s first designer baby.’ His parents underwent IVF and PGD to create an embryo that was free from the Fanconi Anemia gene (3). Adam Nash later became a stem cell donor to his elder sister Molly, to treat her genetic condition, Fanconi Anemia.
- Lulu and Nana: In November 2018, He Jiankui, a scientist from Southern University of Science and Technology in China, claimed that he had produced the ‘world’s first gene-edited human babies.’ The twin girls, named Lulu and Nana, were created using the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technique and were immune to HIV (4). This research drew flak from scientists and bioethicists alike for being unethical, and a call was made globally for strict regulations around gene editing in humans (5).
Designer babies may come across as superior and even life-saving in some situations. However, there are concerns among the general population and scientific community about the morality of the process.
Is It Ethical To Produce Designer Babies?
The prospect of producing genetically enhanced or designer babies has been surrounded by controversies. There is no consensus on the ethical side of creating designer babies. The matter is debatable. The World Health Organization (WHO) has outlined a few ethical concerns related to human genome editing (6).
- Making decisions on behalf of future generations: Bioethicists believe that giving parents a choice to choose traits of the children without their consent or knowledge violates a child’s right to live as an independent individual.
- Widening social inequality: There is a view that access to germline editing could widen the social gap if the techniques are available only to those individuals or countries that can afford them. It can create disparities, wherein some bear the burden of genetic diseases because they cannot afford the treatment, or are in a different culture or geography.
- Deploying it for cosmetic/ skills enhancement: There have been concerns that instead of applying the technique to prevent or treat diseases, the method can be used to enhance human skills, talents, abilities, appearance, etc.
In July 2018, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, UK published a report stating that human genome editing could be ‘morally permissible’, even in cases of human enhancement, if it’s in the interest of the child (7).
Gene alteration and creation of designer babies may or may not be an answer to control genetic ailments and diseases. There are both sides to creating designer babies.
Designer Babies: Pros and Cons
Human genome editing has been widely discussed mainly in two areas of research — editing in body cells (somatic cells) and editing in reproductive cells (germline). Scientific community and bioethicists are divided over the possible advantages and disadvantages of the process. Below are a few pros and cons of creating designer babies.
- These techniques may help reduce or eliminate the risk of life-threatening genetic ailments in unborn babies (8). According to Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) can be used to test around 600 genetic conditions (9). This may help parents to avoid transferring genetic conditions to their babies.
- Researchers from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in a study concluded that new gene-editing technology could correct up to 89% of genetic defects, including diseases like sickle cell anemia (10).
- The gene-editing methods are still considered experimental procedures, and further studies are needed to assess their effectiveness and safety in the long term (11).
- These techniques may cause other unwanted genetic modifications that may pass onto future generations (12).
- Gene alteration may not be accurate in many cases. It becomes trickier when one gene is responsible for several traits or when multiple genes influence a single trait (12).
The gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR do make us believe that designer babies are not a part of science fiction anymore. However, it is important to understand the social, scientific, and ethical issues involved in editing embryos before implantation. It calls for debate and equal participation from international organizations and countries to implement strict regulations, promote transparency in conducting clinical work, and conduct further research to assess the safety and long-term effects of such techniques.
What is your opinion on designer babies? Let us know in the comment section below.
2. Sermon K et al., Preimplantation genetic diagnosis; The Lancet, 363(9421), 1633-1641. (2004)
3. Baby created to save older sister; BBC News Archives
4. Jon Cohen, The untold story of the ‘circle of trust’ behind the world’s first gene-edited babies; Science magazine
5. Wang C et al., Gene-edited babies: Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences’ response and action; The Lancet, 393(10166), 25-26. (2019).
6. The Ethics of Human Genome Editing; World Health Organization
7. Gyngell C et al., Moral reasons to edit the human genome: picking up from the Nuffield report; Journal of Medical Ethics
8. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.Human genome editing: science, ethics, and governance: National Academies Press. (2017).
9. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD); Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, UK
10. Andrew V. Anzalone et al., Search-and-replace genome editing without double-strand breaks or donor DNA; Nature (2019)
11. T.K.Pang and P.C.Ho, Designer babies; Obstetrics, Gynaecology & Reproductive Medicine
12. Cecile and J.W. Janssens, Designing babies through gene editing: science or science fiction?; Genetics in Medicine