One of the biggest concerns critics have had about gene editing is the possibility of “designer babies,” where parents can theoretically imbue their children with all sorts of physical and mental gifts. But new reports are now claiming that embryo editing might not exactly lead to the prevalence of custom-made, specially-designed babies, while only benefiting a smaller percentage of people than believed.
According to a report from the New York Times, a team of researchers was able to repair a single gene mutation on a single gene, with the mutation noted as being responsible for “serious, sometimes fatal” heart disease. The research was able to yield healthy embryos, and scientists are now hopeful that gene editing will one day become a widely accepted way to protect infants from otherwise unavoidable hereditary conditions.
While the positive results of the study do suggest a bright future for gene editing, many are wondering if the technique could result in the prevalence of designer babies, or babies born with well above-average athleticism, intelligence, artistic skills, or other traits. As the New York Times noted, there are serious ethical concerns, where some experts believe that gene editing could allow people “with means” to pay large sums of money to have naturally-talented offspring.
However, another report from the same publication suggests that gene editing might not lead to designer babies just yet. Or, as the New York Times put it, science won’t be able to help parents have children smart enough to study in Ivy League schools, humorous in the same vein as Stephen Colbert, or as talented a singer as Beyonce. The reason for this is the fact that none of these talents can be traced to a singular gene mutation or a specific number of genes.
Researchers able to edit genes of human embryo to correct a disease-causing defect https://t.co/IincTmPTji
— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) August 2, 2017
“Right now, we know nothing about genetic enhancement,” commented Hank Greely, director of Stanford University’s Center for Law and the Biosciences.
“We’re never going to be able to say, honestly, ‘This embryo looks like a 1550 on the two-part SAT.'”
Similarly, genetics and embryology professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute in London told the New York Times that the inability to introduce a template into the embryo means that making designer babies would be impossible with current gene editing technologies.
Aside from the concerns that gene editing could pave the way for designer babies, which were allayed by the second, more recent New York Times report, there are also concerns that the technique might not be that useful after all, especially at the present. An op-ed from The Guardian wrote that while there are more than 10,000 hereditary conditions that might be prevented through gene editing, with a lot of them being serious, there are only “very few people” who could take advantage in the long run.
— New Scientist (@newscientist) August 2, 2017
One classic example would be in the case of people who suffer from Huntington’s disease and carry two copies of the mutation behind it, as gene editing could theoretically overwrite the mutation and replace it with a functional, healthy gene. But with the number of people who have two identical Huntington’s genes being “vanishingly rare” at the moment, that means only mere dozens of people around the world would potentially be able to benefit from the technique.
“We are really talking about a very, very small set of people and it’s easy to forget that because the science is so exciting,” said King’s College London Center for Technology, Ethics, and Law in Society director Karen Yeung, in an interview with The Guardian.
All in all, ethics experts can rest easy for the meantime, as gene editing isn’t exactly capable of kicking off a designer baby trend. But even if it does show promise, its scope may also be very limited in terms of the number of people it could assist, as experts have also posited.
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