Designer Babies revisited

Keith Hudson

My copy of this week’s Economist has just arrived.  Its see-through wrapper shows me a baby at just about crawling stage reaching out to four play bricks  labelled A, T, C and G (the building blocks of DNA).  Around the . . . baby are several captions pointing to various parts of baby’s body —  “High IQ”, “Low risk of Alzheimer’s, breast cancer and strokes”,  “No baldness”, “20/20 vision”, “Perfect pitch” — and finally, “Sprinter”, pointing to the baby’s legs.

The graphic is headlined “Editing humanity” and sub-headed: The prospect of genetic enhancement.”  Well  . . anybody who has been reading my blogs in the last few week or two (e.g. “Breeding better quality children”, 15 August) will know what the Economist to going to say in an inside article.  1. A new gene-editing technique, CRISPR, has recently been developed by which precise parts of genes can be cut out and new parts replaced; 2. Faulty genes can be corrected and designer babies may, or may not, be possible from now onwards.

Now I’ve removed the wrapping and read the Briefing “The age of the red pen” I find that it covers point 1 above but not point 2.  It doesn’t begin to get into what the front cover implies that it’s going to — Designer Babies — apart from CRISPR being used to delete the harmful part of the gene of an individual in a form which ensures that the harmful part will never turn up again in any individual who is a descendant.

However, because all genes take part in many different permutations and subsequent workings in the human body it may, in fact, be too dangerous to remove a harmful part of a gene — and replace it with a standard part — because it might introduce many other unforeseeable consequences that are just as serious as the original condition if not more so and which cannot be prevented from spreading further.

This is why, for the time being until much more is known,  there is an effective ban on carrying out genetic extinctions on foetuses using CRISR.  It is imposed by researchers themselves — though CRISPR will be used for many other purposes.  Designer babies, in the fullest sense of the term as usually understood by most people is not remotely on the cards.

However, as discussed in my previous blog on the topic,  Designer Babies by means of avoidance in perfectly feasible.  If a choice can be made between fertilized eggs that contain a double-portion (or even a single portion) of a defective part of a gene and ones in which the defective part is totally missing — as is carried out during IVF procedures or achievable by alternative methods — then these can be pursued safely.  The healthy foetuses can continue to grow and hopefully result in a healthy baby.

The result is not so much perfect babies — no one can possible specify the qualities of the babies that result — but babies that are tending to go, from one generation to the next, in a ‘more perfect’ direction by shedding harmful genetic mutations one by one along the way.  In this way, if avoidance procedures are used over very many generations by enough couples desiring children then the overall quality of the total human genetic repertoire will become as good as it could be at any instant of time.

The cover of the Economist magazine this week would have misled any reader eager to read about Designer Babies inside.  What he would have read, however, was a great amount of current information about the state of genetics research at the present time and the implication that even if consumer goods and services that we know today become satiated — as I think is probably the case in the advanced countries — the one sure consumer sector that still has a massive growth lying ahead of it is the genomics industry.

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