There have been two remarkable advancements in genetics. The first, CRISPR, led to the second.
CRISPR (you don’t really want to know) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat. So, that was an obvious waste of words, but what it allows scientists to do is truly remarkable. This revolution has seized the scientific community. Research labs worldwide have adopted this new technology because it facilitates making specific changes in DNA.
[Source: First Human Embryos Edited in U.S., by Steve Connor]
It was only a matter of time before some scientist accomplished this in a human embryo and that “matter of time” has now passed. Researchers at the University of Oregon have created genetically modified human embryos. The research group was led by Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov who successfully changed the DNA of a large number of one-cell human embryos with this new gene-editing technique. (Three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.)
Mitalipov and colleagues, however, have broken new ground by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases. And, by the by, none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days and there had never been any intention of implanting them into a womb. (The ethics of experimentation on human embryos is too complex for this missive, so I won’t be discussing it.)
But again, I assure you it is only a matter of time. In my career I had the opportunity to sit and participate in many parent conferences where difficult reproductive choices were made. No one is saying this will be easy.
However, imagine you and your spouse at your first visit to your obstetrician after the drug store pregnancy test wand turned blue. The obstetrician says, “I see you have diabetes in your family. Would you rather your fetus does not have this?” It could be worse. You could have Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, or Charlie Gard’s disease – infantile onset encephalomyopathy mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome – in the family genome. What would your answer be? Would you honestly answer that you would prefer that your offspring be at risk for these diseases? (I stated the example for effect, but genetic engineering would require a visit before the drug store pregnancy test wand turned blue.)
But the process is more dramatic for the child than simply eradicating its propensity to develop a given disease. This process is termed “germline engineering” because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own genetic code. That is to say that the defect would be abolished from your family FOREVER.
It is a short step (not scientifically, of course – the following will take a long time) to less critical questions:
- Would you rather your child had 10 more IQ pints?
- You are both obese. Would you rather your child not be at risk for obesity?
- You are both rather short. Would you rather your child be 6 inches taller?
My friends we are about to enter an era where profound ethical questions will need to be answered. But let me assure you that regardless of the answers to those question these techniques will be applied to humans and there will be NO STOPPING IT! An American law or a United Nations edict will not stop this inevitable outcome now that it is scientifically possible.
Be prepared for designer babies.
And thanks to JM for suggesting I write about this.