Designer Babies- What’s It All About?

Throughout the social and scientific worlds, there is controversy surrounding the potential to genetically modify embryos to create ‘designer babies’. These are embryos that have been screened for genetic diseases, and will therefore only contain selected desired qualities chosen by the parents. However, there are many stories in the media which exaggerate and distort the facts- and this can even be seen in the term ‘designer babies’ itself. It is important to think about the likelihood and implications of this idea, plus to outline what actually gave rise to this concept.

We could suggest that the idea of genetically engineered embryos or the ideas that led to this originated in 1978 and the first in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment. The procedure gave and still gives hundreds of infertile couples a chance to have a child by transferring an egg fertilised in a laboratory into the mothers uterus. It subsequently led to a procedure known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This is a technique used on embryos to profile their genome- it is a form of genetic profiling and embryo screening and is a more technical and accurate way of regarding ‘designer babies’. In terms of health benefits, using PGD means embryos can be screened outside the womb. Embryos can be selected that only carry normal and healthy genes, and are therefore free from genetic abnormalities. Whilst this technique is currently popular, PGD could in the future be used to select any desired specified trait of a child, such as eye colour, intelligence, and athleticism; be used to select embryos to be without a genetic disorder, to increase successful pregnancies, to match a sibling in order to be a donor, for sex selection and therefore be used to design your own baby. Selecting the gender of a child is already possible due to the fact only the X or Y chromosome needs to be identified, but other traits are more difficult due to the amount of genetic material required. Recent breakthroughs have meant that every single chromosome in an embryo can be scanned for genes involved in anything from Down’s Syndrome to lactose intolerance using a single microchip, but how advanced is this and what are the ethics behind this?

There are a large array of ethical, social and scientific concerns over the concept of creating a ‘perfect’ child. Some people worry that in the future there will be an imbalance between genders in the general population especially in societies that favor boys over girls, such as China. Also, a key issue suggested is that there is an element of eugenics to this idea- PGD will mean that people with ‘unattractive’ qualities will be lessened and potentially society may discriminate against those who have not been treated. If we look at this from a more extreme perspective, it could be suggested that we may end up with a race of ‘super-humans’ and a divide between those who have been treated and those who haven’t.  Also, this selection of genotypes suggests a potential deleterious effect on the human gene pool, meaning less genetic variation. Whilst at first this may seem positive due to the fact you could eliminate genetic disorders such as hemophilia A before it becomes prevalent in the body, it is also likely that new diseases may evolve and accidentally be introduced into the human race. Due to the decreased gene pool, only partial evolution would be able to occur and therefore we will be more susceptible to new diseases having a dramatic effect. It is clear from this evidence that regulations must be put in place and strictly enforced before any new advances are made.

So, how close are we to being able to ‘customise’ our children?
In terms of altering genes already present in the embryo, we are already well on our way to refining this technology. Scientists have been altering animal genes for years, and germline therapy is already being used on animals. Germline gene therapy is now being closely linked and developed with PGD- and it could soon be used to change human genetics. Our germline cells are our sex cells (egg and sperm), and using this branch of gene therapy essentially involves manipulating and adding new genes to the cells. The clear possibility from this in terms of PGD is that any trait can be added to an embryo to create a designer baby. This may involve adding a gene to stop a genetic disorder being expressed in a baby’s phenotype by fixing them as they are noticed in PGD, but it could also mean that only certain people will be able to advance in society.

On he other hand however, before these ‘more advanced’ humans are created we need to learn more about the genetic code. The basis of all genetic technologies lies in the human genome, and whilst PGD advances are ever-increasing, at present we can only use this technique to look at one or two genes at a time. Therefore, we cannot use it to alter the genes in embryos, and this would logically lead us to think about gene therapy, but the current lack of technology and the strict regulations regarding experimenting with germline gene therapy makes it unlikely that anyone will be able to create a completely designer baby in the near future.

Designing our babies is a reality that government bodies and various organizations are beginning to accept and address fully, and society’s view of the moral implications behind PGD and gene therapy being a key factor in determining how far this concept can advance; there will be increasingly new debates and controversy over the acceptable applications of gene technologies in humans and human embryos.