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Is it time to make designer babies?

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Scientists say it may be “morally acceptable” to create genetically modified babies in the future and say it is “essential” that they are allowed to experiment on embryos.

So why is this suddenly an issue and what could it mean for society?

What’s a designer baby?

Well it is like a normal baby, but one that has been modified by altering their DNA – which is the blueprint for building a person.

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So what could you change?

Your DNA blueprint is far from perfect. Lots of diseases such as cystic fibrosis,bubble boy syndrome (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease) and the blood disorder beta thalassaemia are down to bad instructions in your DNA.

These defects could be corrected.

But a baby could in theory also be engineered to resist diseases. A single mutation can protect against HIV infection and there are also sections of your DNA which increase the risk of cancer which could also be altered.

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Then there’s the far more distant prospect of making alterations to alter height, beauty, hair colour or intelligence.

Whoa! Is this possible now?

Nobody is on the cusp of doing this.

However, genetic engineering is progressing at a phenomenal pace and scientists say it is important to discuss what is acceptable now, rather than wait until someone crosses an ethical line.

Earlier this year Chinese scientists corrected the defect causing beta thalassaemia in embryos (they were then destroyed rather than implanted).

Why are we talking about this now?

A few years ago a new way of editing DNA was discovered. It has transformed research and is now being used by biology laboratories around the world, whether they’re working on plants, animals or human embryos.

The method combines a “molecular sat-nav” that travels to a precise location in our DNA with a pair of “molecular scissors” that cut it.

But that’s a simple description.

So what’s a more technical one?

The main method being used is called CRISPR-Cas9 and it is the way bacteria defend themselves against viruses.

A short section of genetic material precisely matches up with a section of DNA and then the enzyme Cas9 comes along and makes a cut.

Your DNA then tries to repair itself – this can turn off that section of DNA or allow scientists to insert new sections of DNA that they have engineered.

And it is cheap. And it is easy.

There are other techniques such as Zinc Fingers and Talens which have some advantages, but are harder to perform.

Are designer babies acceptable?

Well that’s for you to decide, but in the eyes of the law at the moment then ‘no’.

But it is worth noting the UK has already made a big shift – in 2015 it made the historic decision to allow the creation of babies with DNA from two women and one man.

The reason was to prevent babies being born with “mitochondrial diseases”.

It was the source of vigorous ethical debate – and it’s one we may be hearing again soon.

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