In November this year, as first broken by the MIT Technology Review, it was revealed that Chinese scientist He Jiankui had been conducting gene-editing research using CRISPR technology on foetuses as late as 24 weeks into pregnancy. Following the trials, it was also reported that one couple had successfully given birth to twins last month.
CRISPR Cas9 is a relatively new technology. I wrote about it in more detail last year (read that article here) and no-one has explored anywhere near its full potential yet. Conversations about gene editing in humans and babies using CRISPR have been mostly theoretical.
The gene-editing experiment in this case was planned to remove the CCR5 gene, in the hopes of effectively immunising the foetus against cholera, smallpox and HIV.
This has hit headlines both in and outside the genomic and scientific community. For many people, it has been seen as a sign that we are much closer to the creation of ‘designer babies’ than we thought, or even wanted, to be.
I’d like to take a look at what the implications are of using CRISPR in this way, as well as looking at the viability of ‘designer babies’.
The truth is, we’ve been tampering with DNA and designing babies for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Just not in our own species, and not through complex scientific techniques. We’ve done it through artificial selection, or selective breeding.
It’s been most commonly seen in dogs, where we’ve historically bred dogs for certain purposes, or to be able to do certain things. This means that, for some canine species, we’re now a long way away from what we started with.
This is an example used by Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, in this video which I’ll refer to a couple more times in this article. He goes on to mention that the Pekingese that we’re left with today originally started out as a wolf, which demonstrates just how much we’ve selectively bred dogs.
From feared hunter to friendly companion
I’m not trying to say that breeding dogs is the same as designing babies, but the precedent is set.
We Already Design our Babies
Well, sort of. I’m referring to another example that Dawkins put forward in his video – that of the ‘pushy parent’. Or perhaps not even a pushy parent, just a parent that wants the best for their child when they’re older, and so might want to help them acquire skills that will help them in later life.
To paraphrase him, in the video Dawkins says that there really isn’t much difference between forcing a child to practice a musical instrument for hours every week, sometimes under duress, and simply requesting that your baby is a musical genius prior to conception.
In fact, if we were able to ask for that in advance, wouldn’t it be better than the methods some parents are going to now? If there was a guarantee that the child did have some sort of key genetic similarity to say, Mozart, wouldn’t they be more justified in their pushing for practice? And would the child be more understanding and willing to do it?
Whilst some people may agree, others may not- after all, is ‘playing God’ worth it just to make your child a better runner, pianist or author? Perhaps not. What about if it was the difference between your child being healthy or not?
The Ultimate Preventative Medicine
Some opponents to CRISPR or gene editing would say that it completely goes against natural selection, a basic law of nature. But realistically we abandoned any adherence to this law with the industrial revolution.
So, whilst a parent may not want to go as far as choosing for their child to have a certain eye or hair colour, surely many would want to guarantee that their child won’t be susceptible to some deadly disease like, say, cholera, smallpox or HIV?
WE already vaccinate our children, so what’s the difference between effectively vaccinating or immunising babies against certain diseases whilst in the womb instead of after they’ve been born?
Modern healthcare is moving at a rate of knots towards a model of preventative medicine, stopping illnesses or ailments occurring before they happen instead of treating them after the event. If this is the case, isn’t using CRISPR in this way the ultimate form of preventative medicine?
The Argument Against
For the most part of this article I’ve been playing devils’ advocate to the widespread and popular opinion that what Dr He did was fundamentally wrong, for a range of scientific and moral reasons. In this piece, announcing the WHO’s assembly of an expert panel to discuss genome editing, it’s also reported Dr He is missing, believed to be under house arrest in his native China.
Condemnation has been widespread as the experiments have been seen not only to break international guidelines on genome editing in humans but also for the precedent it sets. I read in one publication that an important ethical issue in research is that the benefits must outweigh the risks. With the ethical door that Dr He’s trials have opened the question is now whether they should remain open to all the future potential consequences and subsequent risks, or firmly closed again.
In his video, Dr Dawkins agreed that it’s this unknown that is an issue saying that, practically speaking, we don’t understand what the consequences of these sorts of actions could be.
Which leads me back to the question I posed right at the start of this article. If you could, would you? And if yes, whilst you were asking for your baby to be immune to certain diseases, might you also be tempted to ask for them to also be excellent at football, if it were possible? Or would you go even further? Pick an eye or hair colour perhaps?
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