You’re Only Human, But Your Kids Could Be So Much More
Have you ever wished that there were something different about yourself? Maybe you imagined yourself taller, thinner, or stronger? Smarter? More attractive? Healthier?
Or perhaps, as much as you love your children, you wished that there was something different about them. It is not that the love is missing, but it is precisely because you love them that you imagine they would be happier if they were different in some way. It is also possible that some form of genetic disease runs in your family, or a predisposition to cancer, Alzheimer’s, or to some other potentially terrible health problem.
Until recently, you would have been able to do very little, if anything, about these situations, thoughts, and feelings. However, that might soon change. While you might not be able to fundamentally transform yourself or your existing children, in the near future, you just might be able to play God with your own new, little creations. Think of it as a very personal kind of experiment. Technology that is already available today may well make this experimentation possible for anyone who can pay the price to make a new person, only one that is hoped to be “better.”
I mean a designer baby. You would be literally designing and producing a new type of baby via the same sort of technology that is used to make a GM tomato, mouse, or monkey. The baby would be a genetically modified human or, to phrase it in an edgier manner, a GM human.
Would it be legal? In some places, yes.
Ethical? Hard to say, but I have my doubts.
Regardless of such thorny issues, it will be technically feasible to attempt, and you can bet that someone will try to do it in the coming years. The point of my bluntly laying out the incredible possibilities of what designer baby technology might be able to do for you was to illustrate how seductive it will be to many of us.
Should it fail at first, other scientists and doctors might be deterred. On the other hand, some could well see that as an opening to try it too. The technology will eventually become widely available. It might take two, five, or ten years, but it is coming. Should you as a parent do it? Many of us will answer, “yes.”
Playing God via genetically changing human creation is made possible today by the marrying together of two powerful technologies. The first is now an old technique, in vitro fertilization (IVF), which was mastered by Nobel Laureate Robert Edwards and his colleague Patrick Steptoe four decades ago. The second is a new, cutting-edge genetic technology called Crispr-Cas9 that makes it remarkably simple to directly tinker with the human genome (the DNA sequence) of an early embryo. When combined with IVF, these new genetic tools allow scientists to change the DNA, which is the blueprint of a human embryo, when it consists of just one or a few cells.
Your GMO sapiens (a nickname I’ve come up with to describe these still-hypothetical creations) child might have avoided a terrible disease because genetic technology was used to correct a disease-causing mutation in a critical gene. Your baby, and you as its parent, may have literally dodged cystic fibrosis or a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that puts women at elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer, just to mention a couple of many possible examples. The hypothetical GM baby girl born without a BRCA1 mutation would not only have a different life, but also she would never pass the mutation on to anyone in her future family tree.
To produce a GMO sapiens baby, you would begin effectively by placing an order for her or him. It would be a team effort between you and the scientists involved. You might say it would “take a village and a lab” to make a GMO sapiens.
In the same way that today you might order a customized pizza with green olives, hold the onions, Italian ham, goat cheese, and a particular sauce, when you design and order your future GMO sapiens baby you could ask for very specific “toppings.” In this case, toppings would mean your choice of unique traits, selected from a menu: green eyes, hold the diseases, Italian person’s gene for lean muscle, fixed lactose intolerance so the designed individual can eat dairy, and a certain blood type.
Does this sound outlandish?
The personal genetics company, 23andMe, has already put together what is essentially a baby genetic predictor tool. For example, the company has specifically written about how one might go about, as a mother, selecting one’s preference for green eyes and for a reduced risk of certain diseases, by screening the sperm of potential donors for these traits.
Another similar effort is underway from a company called GenePeeks, co-founded by Professor Lee Silver of Princeton University, a proponent of human genetic modification. GenePeeks has developed a technology called Matchright. This service, available at some fertility clinics, enables customers to screen sperm from possible donors for how the genomes of those sperm when combined with the customer’s might lead to certain outcomes in possible future children. The search tool looks both for predicted disease risks and also specific traits.
After the design phase, the GM baby-to-be would go through a series of production steps, one or more of which might be completed outside of the womb, in a laboratory. IVF would play an important role.
Since there are now currently scientists trying to produce artificial or laboratory- produced human wombs, it is even formally possible that, at some point in the future, the “production” of GMO sapiens babies could occur entirely outside of the human body.
Human reproduction could become a process nearly entirely independent of people, relying just on our cells. Scientists, once they had our cells, could “take it from there” so to speak. Not only would sex be unnecessary, but there could also be almost no physical parental involvement at all to produce a baby.
Becoming a parent could turn into almost an intellectual exercise. A project. Instead of building a model airplane or jigsaw puzzle with your kid as a project, you as a parent would do a model building exercise, where your kid is the project. In place of plastic and glue or puzzle pieces, scientists would team up with you as the parent to make this new GM child, using your cells and genetic fabric as the starting material. The only other things needed from you would be the money to pay for the process and your input into the design of the baby.
Traditionally, to make GM mice, researchers make changes to the genome of mouse embryonic stem cells. These cells, which also can be made in human form in theory from any person, are like powerful shape shifters or “transformers” of the stem cell world. Embryonic stem cells can turn into any cell type in the body and hence can grow into a whole embryo. After genetically modifying the embryonic stem cells, these special cells are then transferred to female mice and develop into mouse embryos that grow into a GM mouse. In principle, this could be done in people too. However, with Crispr-Cas9 technology it could be done even more simply without using embryonic stem cells.
The genetic modification step is most likely to be done in humans, either in the egg prior to fertilization or in the one-cell embryo right after its fertilization, using Crispr-Cas9. It could even be done “earlier” in the human developmental spectrum in special kinds of stem cells that can turn into human sperm and eggs, called primordial germ cells or PGCs. By making gene edits via Crispr-Cas9 in cells or embryos very early in development, all the cells of the resulting GM human body would probably carry the same desired gene edit.
Otherwise, we could end up in a situation where the resulting GM baby’s cells do not all have the same DNA sequence. This is called mosaicism, and it could lead to disease.
When the laboratory work and your final part (having the embryo implanted in your uterus, your partner’s, or that of a surrogate) are all done, the end result would be your GMO sapiens baby. The hope would be that it would be a “better” baby than nature alone would have provided you with.
Clearly “better” is a subjective term and could invoke frightening scenarios, such as eugenics, the idea of producing genetically superior human beings and getting rid of genetically “inferior” ones. In the past, eugenics has led to disasters, such as the forced sterilization of thousands of people that occurred throughout the US.
Powerful new gene-editing and reproductive technologies will not necessarily catalyze eugenics, but there is a risk that that could happen. It is a danger made greater by some people today embracing the idea of a new, benevolent eugenics that is empowered by novel technologies, such as Crispr-Cas9.
I expect that, at first, the focus of heritable human genetic modification will be to design a healthier baby for you and ultimately a healthier adult.
That sounds noble enough. For example, imagine a designer baby who is inherently resistant to a host of particularly nasty bacteria or parasites such as that which causes malaria, or unable to be infected by certain viruses, such as a hepatitis virus, Ebola, or HIV. A GMO sapiens made resistant to viral infection via Crispr technology would be ironic given that bacteria use Crispr to resist viral infection too.
Or maybe the GM baby would have novel brain architecture or an innovative type of neuron, designed so that she or he could never get autism or Alzheimer’s disease. Tinkering with genetics to change the architecture of the human brain, the most complex object known in the universe, would be fraught with danger. You might well end up causing cognitive impairments and brain diseases.
As mentioned above, the most likely first goal will be to create a GM baby that has been corrected for a single, disease-causing genetic mutation. This mutation, often normally passed along by you or your spouse to the child, would otherwise have caused her to be ill or to die. But now your baby would be born without this mutation, as it would have been corrected by gene-editing when she was just an embryo or even earlier in the reproductive cells used to make her.
Maybe at least in the early days of GMO sapiens production, those doctors, scientists and parents involved would avoid the temptation to tinker with “vanity” traits, such as height, musculature, skin or eye color, or even intelligence, pushing your child to score off the charts on an IQ test. They would just stick to making a healthier GM baby.
Although if you paid enough money, perhaps you could make such, “a la carte,” designer selections at certain businesses in some countries. It would cost more. This would be akin to the way you can pay extra for a “vanity” license plate in some countries.
Those advocating for human genetic modification fall in two camps: those who support therapy to prevent serious genetic disease, and those futurists and some transhumanists who are keen to modify the human genome for the “betterment” of humanity. The latter are attracted to the new Crispr-Cas9 technology and appear to support a new, sometimes-called “liberal” eugenics, where the focus is on making people “better” rather than on preventing reproduction of “inferior” people.
Within the former camp, some advocates have succeeded in getting the use of mitochondrial genetic modification technology (also known as “three- person IVF”) in humans legalized in the UK in 2015. Some advocates of three-person IVF argue that it would not lead to genetic modification, but science says otherwise. So proponents of some forms of human genetic modification are not just here today, but are also actively advocating its use now or in the future.
Advocates of making designer babies imagine new realities. For instance, Professor Silver of Princeton, despite advocating for designer babies, also imagines a future reality in which genetic modification technology changes society. In this future, Silver predicts an upper class of the “GenRich,” who are GM people that control society, and a lower class of “naturals” who are not.v In the predicted future of his book, Remaking Eden, Silver’s GenRich become the new glitterati vi:
“(In a few hundred years) the GenRich — who account for 10 per- cent of the American population — (will) all carry synthetic genes… . All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry (will be) controlled by members of the GenRich class…. Naturals (will) work as low-paid service provid- ers or as laborers… . (Eventually) the GenRich class and the Natural class will become… entirely separate species with no ability to cross- breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee…. (I)n a society that values individual freedom above all else, it is hard to find any legitimate basis for restricting the use of reprogenetics…. (T)he use of reprogenetic technologies is inevitable… . There is no doubt about it…whether we like it or not…”
In this future vision, it would appear a kind of Social Darwinism is at work turbocharged by genetics. Silver coined the term “Reprogenetics” to mean the coordinated use of assisted reproductive and genetics technologies to produce genetically enhanced humans. In a newer 2007 edition of his Remaking Eden book, Silver subtitled it, “How Genetic Engineering and Cloning will Transform the American Family.”
So make no mistake, there will be people who will spend large sums of money to not only have a child, but also to make GM children that are better than those of their peers.
What happens to them and to society as a result? If one looks at art and literature, collectively the prediction would be dire. There is a surprisingly long history of fictional works exploring humans hacking into their own creation. Almost without exception, the results imagined are dystopian in nature. Even today, polling suggests people are very concerned with the idea of human genetic modification and cloning.
A significant number of people would not be able to resist that temptation. Amongst those of us who are parents, who does not like to think that their kids are better than average? What if you could almost guarantee that your child would outshine all of the others in the neighborhood? All the kids in the country? Many of us would give in to that temptation.
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