Designer Babies

While you cannot today genetically engineer a baby for gender, eye color, or height of your choice, there are accepted and reliable technologies that allow you to select for gender, screen for genetic disorders, prevent birth defects, and very soon with reliability pick “simple” traits like those formerly-mentioned, amongst several candidate zygotes (single-celled embryos) or cytoplasts (few-celled embryos) (1). Intelligence of several varieties will probably not be long from the menu.

Genetic Selection vs. Genetic Engineering

Regardless of whether we are talking about selection or engineering the goal remains the same: producing healthier better fit children than random natural processes might create. The difference between the two is a matter of interaction with the actual trait-producing DNA, or “genes”.

In order to select for the right combination of genes to get the desired results, you have to understand the difference between two or more very similar options which may vary by only a few base pairs. This recognition is the essence of both genetic selection and genetic engineering. Selection is knowing the right combination when you see it; engineering is the technical skill to directly “arrange” or “edit” the genes in the proper known sequence.

Genetic Selection and Designer Babies

On August 13th 1996, a girl named Jessica was born after a genetic prescreening. Her parents had long wanted a baby girl without success. Doctors at the Virginia Fertility Clinic, in vitro fertilized her parents’ sperm and egg, produced a lot of embryos and then selected an embryo which would give rise to a girl. This embryo was then implanted into her mother and she was born normally. The same technique is already being used to diagnose and prevent deadly genetic diseases. To achieve this, scientists screen from several embryos for the disease and select an embryo which doesn’t show the sign of the disease.

Institutes like the L.A. Fertility Clinic, which was first created to screen for genetic diseases, now provide options for gender selection and soon will provide parents with an option to select physical traits of their babies. According to Dr. Steinberg, the director of the institute predicted that they will soon be able to select for eye color with 80% certainty (5).  A boost to this technology was achieved in 2012 when the complete DNA of the fetus was mapped. This made it even easier to screen for diseases, select for gender and engineer (select) simpler traits like eye color, handedness, addictive behavior, nutritional background and athleticism (4).

Physical traits are quite complex in nature. Multiple genes, pathways need to interact with a lot of factors in the environment for the trait to express itself. Thus quite a bit of research is still required to select complex traits, however we are on the track that will soon lead to the ability to make “parent-desired” babies (1-4).

Genetic selection is a temporary measure with the relatively limited opportunities provided by nature to improve our children’s quality of life, compared to the promise of genetic engineering.

Genetic Engineering and Designer Babies

As you may have seen in other articles on this site, there is an amazing competence growing amongst our scientists and technicians around the world in the area of successfully producing recombinant DNA (man-made segments of DNA, including genes). In everything from Genetically-Modified Organism (GMO) corn to chimeras (an organism made from the DNA of two separate types of organisms), experts are successfully manipulating DNA at its most fundamental level.

As our proficiency in recognizing and associating certain segments of DNA (genes) to their physical manifestation grows, and our skill at creating recombinant DNA strengthens, these complimentary abilities will enable Designer Babies to be born with traits even beyond the genetic options two parents’ combined DNA could produce.

For example, a set of parents may wish to have a child free of [insert any genetic disease you wish here], a condition from which both parents suffer.  After obtaining the services of a preimplantation genetic diagnosis clinic, multiple attempts are made to create an embryo from the sperm and eggs of the parents that would be free of the genetic disorder, but to no avail.  In our hypothetical situation no natural combination of the parent’s genetic material affords their offspring a healthier life. With genetic engineering the faulty DNA could be manually edited to prevent the disease from occurring in the child.

Designer Babies and Public Opinion

People have different reactions to the thought of deliberately producing healthier, parent-desired children.

Some people are afraid that designing babies would give rise to another eugenic movement or might lead to a world like the fictitious one dreamed up by Aldous Huxley in his book “A brave new world” (6). Alarmists argue that genetics might soon make the world full of blue-eyed, blonde-haired babies or “super-babies”.  Other people think that it is our responsibility to ensure the well-being of our children, and take the perspective that parents are a diverse range of people each with their own, unique ideals of health, traits, and well-being to bestow upon their offspring.

One concern with today’s currently limited genetic selection process is that of discarding defective embryos. But because the human body naturally aborts many defective fetuses by a process called spontaneous abortion/miscarriage, many people believe that discarding a defective embryo in the clinic should not be viewed any differently. In addition, since in vitro fertilization already provides options for gender selection and other simpler traits, many scientists and parents alike think of selecting for complex traits as an improvement.

One common misconception and a scare tactic used by those opposed to germline human genetic engineering, is that we will pass the point of no return: that altering genes that can be inherited will forever change the human race and we will be helpless to turn back the hands of time.  Actually, the exact opposite is true. With the power to directly edit genes, any alteration can be retracted, further tweaked, eliminated, or anything whatsoever.

To Design or Not to Design

That, to contradict the old saying, is not the question.  The design, or rather the selection process of desirable traits is already a widespread and acceptable practice for the elimination of “obvious” defects and diseases, as well as gender balancing.  While there are a few fundamentalists and others who decry even these practices, for the most part we as a society consider it acceptable.

The more appropriate question to ask is “Is there a line?”

There was an article in the Scientific American from some time ago (previously referenced) which asked a few questions apparently intended to be deep, probing, or in some way framing of potential dilemmas.  To illustrate how relatively easy it is to determine broad guidelines around “right” and “wrong” in terms of parental rights around their designer babies, I’ll repeat the questions and also provide the answers (1).

Q1. Should parents be allowed to pick embryos for specific tissue types so that their new baby can serve as a donor for an ailing sibling?

A1. Of course, so long as the tissue types are of a healthy variety. Normal legislation would apply towards compelling any post-birth donation.

Q2. Should a deaf parent who embraces his or her condition be permitted to select an embryo apt to produce a child unable to hear?

A2. Of course not. You cannot deprive an unborn child of any physical or mental capacity inherent in basic human functionality.

Q3. Will selection of traits perceived to be desirable end up diminishing variability within the gene pool, the raw material of natural selection?

A3. Genetic engineering will enable more genetic variability amongst the human race than could ever be achieved through naturally occurring processes.

The Ultimate Threat to Society: Overly Restrictive Legislation

For those who organize to oppose genetic selection and genetic engineering to create designer babies, one of the arguments is that it will create an ever-widening gap between the Haves and the Have Nots: those that can afford embryonic improvement and those that cannot. They seek to impose restrictive legislation to prevent the common use of the technology for either individual or societal improvement. Some go as far as wanting to turn back the clock such that curing preventable genetic disorders is made illegal.

The net effect of restrictive legislation in one location (or even a broad coalition of countries) will only drive the scientists, medical professionals, wealthy financiers and others desiring to employ the technologies for personal betterment ‘underground’. In this probable scenario the technology will continue to be developed but as a result of the (ineffective) ban, it will only be made available to the very wealthy and privileged who will be essentially free from any societal oversight or legal safeguards.

In the scenario in which human enhancement technologies are banned in one or even a coalition of countries, the activists responsible for swinging public opinion toward this future may sleep better at night having served their short term consciences, but at the cost of creating an increasingly elitist minority further widening the gulf between the haves and have nots at the genetic level. Sadly for society, these activists will accelerate the very future they are trying to avoid.

The answer, in part, is the active education and participation of everyone in evaluating and applying the technologies toward the shaping of a deliberate, positive future for all. The question is not how do we stop technological progress (an impossibility), rather, how do we make its benefits equally and safely available to all.

References

  1. Web address  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=regulate-designer-babies
  2. Web address  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=designer-babies-preimplantation-genetic-diagnosis-pgd
  3. Author  Baird, Stephen L., Title  Designer Babies: Eugenics Repackaged or Consumer Options? Date   2007Publication  International Technology Education Association (ITEA)
  4. Web address  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/gender-selection-_n_1889991.html
  5. Web address  http://www.fertility-docs.com/about.phtml
  6. Ly, Sarah, “Ethics of Designer Babies”. Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2011-03-31). ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/2088

 

What is Genetic Engineering?

This is a good article for the uninitiated or anyone that wants a very broad, fundamental overview of the subject of genetic engineering.  All of the topics covered in this article are dealt with more in-depth throughout the rest of this Genetic Engineering Section of the Future Human Evolution website.

Inside This Article

  • We’re going to tackle some of the more troublesome genetic terminology for you right up front, provide you a DNA visual model of them so you can see how all the key genetic “parts” fit together within a cell, then in the length of one paragraph tell you what it’s all about; “genetic engineering in a nutshell”.
  • After that we dive right into the ways genetic engineering can be applied to humans for everything from treating the diseases of today (gene therapy) to eliminating genetic diseases from tomorrow’s gene pool (germline engineering).
  • Lastly, we will give you a glimpse on where science and technology stands today on Designer Babies.

The Definition of a “Gene”

And other important (but confusing) terminology

Since Gregor Mendel’s experiment on the study of inheritance patterns of peas in 1857, the theory of “genes” controlling our physical being came into light. This evidence gave firm affirmation that the as yet undefined gene carries hereditary information from generation to generation, in other words genes are responsible for genotypic (molecular DNA type) and phenotypic (physical type) characteristics of individuals. Four decades later in 1902, Walter Sutton and Theodar Boveri proposed that “chromosomes,” supersets of DNA, are responsible for carrying genetic information. In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick put forth a model for the physical and “double helix”-shaped chemical structure of DNA molecules that serve as the backbone of DNA; series of four-lettered, chemical base-pair combinations called nucleotides, and specific segments of nucleotides that give rise to potential traits called genes.

That’s a whole lot of terminology for one paragraph, so let this picture help you out:

chromosomes-genes-nucleotides-dna-base-pairs-and-the-future-of-human-evolution

Genetic Engineering in a Nutshell

With all this known genetic information researchers realized it was possible to develop technology for the rapid addition, change, or deletion of specific genes which then quite simply and naturally led to the development of genetic engineering as a science and technology. Genetic engineering mainly requires a gene to be transferred into a host cell, using a vector- biomaterial that facilitates merging of the new DNA with that of the host cell’s DNA. The whole process is called transformation. A good term to remember is “recombinant DNA”.  That’s what a human-edited strand of DNA is called- it has been taken apart and the “recombined” to make a better organism.

From a practical application perspective in everything from crops, livestock, and bio-based consumer goods (e.g. cotton), Genetic Engineering comes in two basic varieties: “Intra-species” (within a single species), and “Interspecies” (between two or more species):

  1. Intra-species improvement: Within a single species, creating recombinant DNA to produce literally next generation results that might normally take decades or even centuries of traditional plant and animal breeding to achieve
  2. Interspecies improvement: It can be used to move genes and the genetic characteristics of one type of organism’s cells to another type to produce beneficial results.  Genetic engineering makes it possible to shuffle information between entirely unrelated species (e. g. transferring Bacillus thuringiensis cry toxin gene as an effective pesticide in cotton to protect it from pests).

Genetic engineering also shows tremendous potential for improving the health and well-being of humans.

Human Genetic Engineering

In humans, as with any other organism, genetic engineering is simply the editing of genes in living cells. Genes, as alluded to before, are merely segments of DNA (nucleotides) that are responsible for traits in the physical body (phenotype). This includes all heritable characteristics including coloration, height, certain intelligence factors, etc., as well as the predisposition or immunity to particular diseases and genetic defects.

Not all human genetic engineering is targeted at improving future generations (aka germline engineering)- in fact human genetic engineering today for all intents and purposes is limited to Gene Therapy: correcting genetically defective cells in a single living human.

Gene Therapy vs. Germline Engineering

With regard to reproductive classification, there are two types of cells in the body:

  1. Germ cells aka “Gamete” cells – Often used interchangeably with “gamete”, germ cells are those capable of turning into gametes, i.e. sperm and egg cells which combine to form the next generation of human.  Genetic characteristics contained in these cells are “germline” as they will be passed on from one generation to the next (down the germ-cell line).
  2. Somatic cells – These are basically every other type of cell in the body (some 200 varieties) except the germ cells.  Somatic cells can undergo any amount of change without any effect on offspring.  Gene therapy usually targets these non-reproductive, somatic cells (because that’s where most diseases occur).

Human Gene Therapy

Nearly every disease has a genetic component.  Either the gene is missing in part or in whole, or its base pairs are out of normal sequence or otherwise damaged.  Gene therapy targets not only the specific cells that contain the DNA, but the specific strand of DNA that is defective.

Genetic Disorders

Both environmental and genetic factors have roles in the development of any disease. A genetic disorder is a disease caused by abnormalities in an individual’s genetic material (genome). There are two classifications of disorders that occur at the gene level: (1) single-gene, and (2) multifactorial (involving multiple genes).  Chromosomal and mitochondrial defects also lead to “genetic” diseases but do not occur at the gene level and are covered elsewhere on this site.

(1) Single-gene (also called Mendelian or monogenic) diseases – This type is caused by changes or mutations that occur in the DNA sequence of one gene. There are more than 6,000 known single-gene disorders, which occur in about 1 out of every 200 births. Examples are Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Marfan syndrome. Single-gene disorders are inherited in more easily-identifiable patterns than are their more complex alternative, multifactorial disorders.

(2) Multifactorial (also called complex or polygenic) disorders – This type is caused by a combination of environmental factors and mutations in multiple genes. For example, breast cancer is now known to be influenced by genes found on seven different chromosomes. This “matrixed” or interactive nature makes it much more difficult to analyze than a single gene or chromosomal disorder. Many of the most common chronic disorders are multifactorial and include Alzheimer’s, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis.

As a note for later in this article, multifactorial inheritance is also associated with heritable traits such as height, eye color, and skin color.

Gene Therapy Treatments and Methods

In order for gene therapy to be successful, “good genes” or “Therapeutic DNA” must replace dysfunctional DNA in most of the affected cells. Obviously a technician is not going to take a needle and inject every individual nucleus in the diseased area of a person’s body (thousands or even millions of cells).  Scientists looked to nature to find a solution; a vehicle that already performs a similar function. In one of the greatest turn-abouts in natural history, rather than the harmful virus hi-jacking and invading healthy cells and turning them into destructive viral making machines, we humans have managed to hijack the virus’ own self-replicating mechanism replacing it with a healthy version of our target DNA for the purpose of turning it loose to “infect” our unhealthy cells with the new, improved, healthy DNA.

Back to terminology, this re-purposed virus is called a “vector”. Vector as concept, term, and tool is important in the context of both gene therapy and genetic engineering. In traditional medicine, a vector is an organism that does not cause disease itself but which spreads pathogens from one organism to another. For example a mosquito, considered a vector, can carry heart worm or malaria from one host to another without suffering from the condition itself.

Geneticists have borrowed the concept for the transmission of genes.  In genetics, a vector is simply a molecule containing, and used to move, external healthy DNA into targeted dysfunctional host cells.  As described above, vectors usually contain a virus to help assimilate the healthy DNA onto the dysfunctional DNA strand in the host cell but there are other means of getting our therapeutic DNA into damaged nuclei.

  • Vectors, of which there are many varieties, may employ a similar technique but using bacteria as the facilitator.
  • They may also have a fat or “lipid” coating similar to the fat or lipid coating of the target cell to help the vector bond to the target cell and naturally absorb/pass the DNA from the vector to the nucleus of target cell.
  • Genes can also gain entrance into cells when an electrical charge is applied to the cell to create tiny openings in the membrane that surrounds a cell in a technique that is called electroporation. Not very useful on a large scale as you might imagine.
  • Therapeutic DNA also can get inside target cells by chemically linking the DNA to a molecule that will bind to special cell receptors. Once bound to these receptors, the therapeutic DNA constructs are engulfed by the cell membrane and passed into the interior of the target cell. This delivery system tends to be less effective than other options.
  • Researchers also are experimenting with introducing an artificial “47th” human chromosome into target cells. This added chromosome would reside next to nature’s 46 without affecting their functions and with causing mutations. Scientists believe that the body’s immune system would accept it more readily than typical therapeutic insertions due to its naturalistic construction and autonomy. Scientists have already successfully inserted such a human chromosome into mice as proof of concept. The mice are fine.

There are numerous gene therapy clinical trials on-going throughout the world. In fact a recent study (Feb 2013) identified nearly 2000 completed, ongoing, or approved gene therapy trials for the period 1989 through the 2013 date of publication. At the present time, in the United States the Federal Drug Administration has not approved any gene therapy treatments for commercial distribution or availability.

The website www.HumanBiotechnology.org , amongst the many aspects of human biotechnology they cover, will be monitoring the potential for this lack of commercial gene therapy approval to change and will be following the organizations and trials most likely to succeed.

Human Germline Genetic Engineering

Human germline genetic engineering refers to the intentional altering of DNA in germ cells that will lead to the change being a natural part of the reproductive cycle, passing the improved DNA from one generation to the next.

The techniques used in germline engineering are much the same as those used in gene therapy except that healthy gene insertion into a target cell can be done using a wider variety of methods.  This is because instead of needing to treat say large amounts of a diseased liver (potentially tens of thousands of somatic cells) as in gene therapy, germline engineering need only target either the gamete cells (egg and/or sperm) or an early embryonic cell: a “zygote”, the originating single cell from a sperm-egg union, or a “cytoblast”, the first few cells divided from the zygote.  Changes made at these early stages will then multiply as the organism matures with the therapeutic gene replicated naturally in every cell.

As a result of fewer cells being targeted, the injection method referenced in the gene therapy section as impractical now makes sense. It is called Microinjection.  Similarly, a less-than-cell-sized metal sliver can be coated with therapeutic DNA and gently and precisely “shot” into a target cell using the world’s tiniest shotgun in a process called “Bioballistics.” Whoever said scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

The key difference then, between gene therapy and germline engineering is heritability: The latter offering the ability to permanently eliminate all genetic disease (including Cancer) and many aging ailments not only improving the quality of human life but living, and contributing, and enjoying life longer.

An important note to those who would confuse heritability with obligatory permanence. Germline engineering allows for the possibility of permanence. What it is in reality is the ultimate in flexibility. At any point in the future, whether it be the next generation after an alteration (reference the accelerated definition of generation), 10 generations down the road, or a thousand, genetic changes may be modified back to their original configuration, or further tweaked to achieve the desired result.

Designer Babies: The State of the Art

We have other articles on the site dealing specifically with Designer Babies and the future of human evolution. This section of this article will simply give you the brief, bare facts.

  • There are genetic processes in place to prevent a child from permanently having/carrying/passing on over 400 genetic diseases.
  • Such genetic processes are not engineering: no one is manipulating DNA. Rather they are selecting a disease-free embryo from among several created by the parent’s gametes.
  • This selection process is called “Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis” and is commercially available.
  • The only trait parents may currently choose via preimplanation genetic diagnosis is gender.
  • Gender is relatively easy to detect through a microscope and an embryo with the parent-preferred gender is selected from among several created by the parents’ gametes, for implantation into the mother.
  • Science and technology is not at the level to “engineer” parent-preferred traits (i.e. manipulate genes directly).
  • Difficulties to overcome revolve primarily around reliably identifying what genes, or more importantly what combination of genes, result in what traits and have what as yet undetected subtle effects on other traits.  This is the Multifactorial (also called complex or polygenic) gene complication referenced earlier in the article.
  • Another difficulty is the technical prowess of current methodologies: getting the therapeutic gene in the exact or at least an effective location along the target cell’s six-foot long strand of DNA.

Daily progress is being made by scientists and technicians from around the world toward overcoming the practical challenges in allowing parents the freedom to choose a happier, healthier legacy for themselves and their children.

Society’s concern should not be how to prevent such progress, rather how to make it available to all that wish to take advantage of its humanitarian benefits.

References

  1. Pensak, M. J.; Lieberman, J. R., Gene Therapy for Bone Regeneration. Current pharmaceutical design 2013.
  2. Hirschler, B., Doctors test gene therapy to treat blindness. Reuters O5/01/2007, 2007.
  3. How Viruses Work by Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/cellular-microscopic/virus-human.htm
  4. Human Genome Project Information: Gene Therapy http://web.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/medicine/assist.shtml
  5. Human Genome Project Information: Genetic Disease Information http://web.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/medicine/assist.shtml
  6. Gene therapy clinical trials worldwide to 2012–an update, The Journal of Gene Medicine Volume 15, Issue 2, Article first published online: 27 FEB 2013
  7. Barbara E. Stranger and Eli A. Stahl: Progress and Promise of Genome-Wide Association Studies for Human Complex Trait Genetics, Genetics February 2011 vol. 187 no. 2 367-383
  8. The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/exclusive-mice-with-human-chromosomes–the-genetic-breakthrough-that-could-revolutionise-medicine-8701357.html , 11 July 2013

Human Genetic Engineering

Human genetic engineering is but one aspect of the overall field of Human Biotechnology. It is the most fascinating aspect of Human Biotechnology with the power to improve everyone’s quality of life, healing all of our genetic diseases permanently. We will soon be able to improve our mental, physical, and emotional capabilities. We’ll be able to introduce regenerative functions natural in other animals, increase longevity, and ensure a healthy diversity in the human genome.  It carries the promise of enabling humanity to survive a wider range of environments on alien worlds ensuring our long term survival.

In this section of the website we have several articles on exactly what genetic engineering is, up to the state of the art, how it is accomplished, how we humans have been engaged in the activity for our own betterment for thousands of years, and how we can and are applying it to humans.

In addition to “just the facts” we also have a number of speculative articles that extrapolate the plausible, the probable, and the very unlikely in our exploration of the many paths to the future of human evolution.

The menu to the right has links to our genetic engineering articles.

human-genetic-engineering-future-human-evolution

Human Genetic Engineering: Improving the Quality of Life Now. Ensuring the Diverse, Robust Future of Human Evolution.