The U.S. federal agency Food and Drug Administration (FDA) begins its consideration of biological procedures which, if successful, will allow creating genetically modified babies, reports Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society.
“This is a dangerous step”, warns Darnovsky. According to her, these methods will “change all the cells in the bodies of children born as a result of their use, and these changes will be transmitted to future generations.”
How Genetically Modified Babies Could Be Created
We are talking about the methods that the FDA calls the “mitochondrial manipulation technologies.” The genetic material is extracted from the egg or embryo of a woman with hereditary mitochondrial disease and transplanted into a healthy egg or donor embryo (their own genetic materials are removed).
Thus, the offspring will carry the genes of three people: mother, father, and the donor.
The developers of these methods say that they will give the opportunity to women with impaired health to give birth to healthy children with whom they will be genetically related. Some suggest to use them in cases of infertility associated with age.
“The objectives are worthy, but the methods are particularly problematic in terms of the consequences for society and health risks“, says the author.
What if children or subsequent generations will manifest complications? And how far will we go in trying to create genetically engineered humans?
Many scientists and politicians call to apply the tools of human genetic engineering carefully and thoughtfully and use them aiming only to treat genetic disorders, but not to manipulate the hereditary traits of future children.
“Genetic modification of sperm, eggs, and embryos at an early stage of development should be strictly prohibited. Otherwise, there is a risk of sliding into experiments on humans and high-tech eugenics”, the author writes.
However, it seems that the resistance to inherited gene modifications decreases in many countries. The idea of manipulating mitochondria is considered not only by the U.S. but also by the British authorities.
The author notes that women with mitochondrial diseases have less dangerous ways to have children (adoption, IVF, using donor eggs).
“If we can do something, it does not mean that we should do it,” concludes Marcy Darnovsky.
Eugenics: Will We Choose a Partner by Genetic Compatibility in the Future?
It seems that we are moving towards a new era of eugenics, and in the near future, our choice of a partner will be based not on the feelings of love, but on the genetic compatibility.
In the dystopian film Gattaca, full-fledged members of society could be the only people born after a careful examination of their genetic code. All others were assigned the role of cleaners.
Professor Armand Leroi from King’s College London predicts that a steadily decreasing cost of DNA scan can lead to a society based on genetic superiority.
At the Open Forum «Euroscience» 2012 in Dublin, Leroi said that in his opinion, in the next five to ten years, paying to access one’s complete genetic code will be standard practice for young people.
It is quite natural that the desire to have healthy children will lead future generations to want to assess the genetic diagram of their prospective partner. Having the necessary information, future couples will be able to use the technology of artificial insemination to conceive a child that will not be subject to any incurable disease.
However, he adds, it is unlikely that people will have the “luxury” to use technology to create genetically modified babies with a certain intelligence level or eye color but instead, will focus more on the prevention of severe genetic diseases.
Leroi also said that the cost of genetic sequencing drops so quickly that “very, very soon it will be very, very affordable“. As an example, he pointed out that the price of genetic sequencing fell from one million a decade ago to about four thousand dollars today.
He noted that, in a sense, eugenics is already with us because every year, tens of thousands of abortions are performed for unborn children with Down syndrome and other genetic diseases.
“These processes already take place in most European countries. Many of the ethical issues that arise when people talk about neo-eugenics disappear as soon as you start to offer a selection of genes or the choice of a partner as a eugenic tool.
We have actually come to the determination of the genes that make a person.”
Philippa Taylor of the Christian medical fraternity says that society should “recognize and resist the eugenic way of thinking“.
“The growing obsession in our society by celebrity status, physical perfection and high intelligence fuels the view that people with various disabilities or genetic diseases are somehow not worth to live”, said Taylor in an interview for a British newspaper.
“We have to recognize and resist the eugenic thinking. Our priorities should be the development of drugs and supportive measures for people suffering from genetic diseases, and not the destruction of these people before they are born”, she adds.
Will Scientists Genetically Modify Human DNA in the Future?
In the late 80s, scientists from Osaka University in Japan observed some unusual sequence repeats in the DNA, while studying the gene of a common bacterium.
These sequences, which proved to be part of a sophisticated immune system used by bacteria to fight viruses, gave scientists an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite the code of life. Just a year ago, it was discovered that bacteria can be used to perform specific changes in the DNA of plants, animals, and humans.
The molecular system known as CRISPR has already made the production of genetically modified animals a much easier process. The first experimental results of the Dutch Institute Humbrecht show that this system can be used to restore a mutation that causes cystic fibrosis disease.
Although CRISPR is accompanied by much enthusiasm, at the same time, it raises important concerns, such as safety and ethics, since the technical modification of genes in mammals and their embryos are not unlikely to be used in human embryos, raising the concern of creating genetically modified babies.
As confirmed in 2007, these unusual repeats in the DNA sequences are part of the adaptive immune system and have taken the important role of remembering pathogenic invaders that challenged the organism in the past.
The function of the genome of the bacteria is as follows: The DNA repeated sequences are separated by other sequences. These “spacers” are pieces of the DNA of the viruses that attacked the organism in the past.
Nevertheless, the real frenzy in the scientific community began in 2012 when a team led by Emmanuelle Charpentier from Umea University in Sweden and Jennifer Doudna from the University of California at Berkeley, showed a method of using the CRISPR system that allowed them to cleave any DNA sequence they want.
The cell, while making efforts to undo the damage, usually does not succeed completely. To mutate a gene, scientists typically introduce a “patch” DNA, similar to the one that existed at the point where the sequence was cut but also carrying the desired change.
However, could this apply to other organisms except for bacteria? Doudna says: “Today, researchers can create genetically modified mice in their laboratory,” while scientists consider it to be very likely that in a few years, CRISPR might be tested in humans.
Is the reality of eugenics and genetically modified babies getting closer? Will the scientific community approve genetic engineering methods that would allow modifying human DNA? I guess we will soon know.
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