Advertisement

When Will We Have Designer Babies?

When Will We Have Designer Babies?
From Gizmodo - November 13, 2017

Within 20 to 40 years, sex will no longer be the preferred method of reproduction. Instead, half the population with decent health care willnos**tting youhave eggs grown from human skin and fertilized with sperm, then have the entire genome of about 100 embryo samples sequenced, peruse the highlights, and pick the best model to implant. At least thats what Stanford law professor and bioethicist Hank Greely predicts in The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction. But skin-grown humans aside, how long until we have designer babies?

Heres where we are: a gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 has produced a variety of terrifying wonders over the past few years. In August, a group of scientists announced that they had successfully edited a human embryo to eradicate a heart condition. (The validity of their paper, published in the journal Nature, is now disputed, but Chinese scientists also claimed to have edited embryos in 2015, though with less success.) And designer pets are already within reach; mice have been turned green. Beagles have been doubled in muscle mass. Pigs have been shrunk to the size of cocker spaniels with designer fur. Woolly mammoths are being attempted.

Greely expects human selection to be less like the Build-a-Bear workshop which designer pets suggests, in which you start from scratch with a base animal and pick features from a menu, but rather in which prospective parents select from a pot of about 100 embryos made by two people for preferences like gender and health, and maybe tweak out the hereditary diseases with CRISPR/Cas9.

Its debatable when and how CRISPR-edited embryos will be approved for implantation (Congress has currently banned the FDA from even considering it), and scientists are currently wrestling over putting a moratorium on its use on humans. CRISPRs own co-founder Jennifer Doudna fears what eugenic nightmare her technology could bring; in 2015, she co-signed a letter calling for thorough investigation into potential risks before any attempts at human engineering are sanctioned, if ever, for clinical testing.

This week on Giz Asks, we asked geneticists, bioethicists, and biotechnology experts and skeptics whether a future of designer babies is as crazy as it sounds.

Hank Greely

Director, Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, author of The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction

I think that when average readers hear the term gene editing, our minds jump to Gattaca or a build-a-bear workshop for babies where you walk into a lab and select desirable traits (strength, beauty, intelligence, etc) from a pamphlet.

I think GATTACA was much more about selection than about editing, but, yes, most people have an exaggerated view of what is possible.

We dont know anything, really, about genes that give increased IQ. I suspectand in my book, The End of Sex, I predictthat in 20 to 40 years well know a little, but not muchmaybe enough to say this embryo has a 60% chance of being in the top 50% or a 13% chance of being in the top 10%. Intelligence is just too complicated and despite decades of work only genes associated with very low intelligence have been found.

Note, though, that you said genetically selectselection is more about preimplantation genetic diagnosis [PGD, pre-screening for genetic diseases in embryos] and picking among embryos randomly created by a couple. Editing is intentionally changing DNA away from what the couple created. Neither, though, works worth a damn unless you know what the relationship between the DNA and the trait is and not only arent we close with intelligence, we may never be very good at it: too many genes are involved, along with too much environment and too much luck!

...On eye color, hair color, skin color, etc., weve got some clues now and will be pretty good in ten to 20 yearsthough I doubt CRISPRing embryos will be shown to be safe and ready for clinical use in less than 20 to 30 years. On IQ, math ability, sports ability, music ability, personality type well have some information but probably not very much: 60%, 70%, maybe 80% chances of being in the top half but not 90 to 100%. ... Right now, though, we have made almost no progress on those traits or on common complicated diseases like asthma, type 2 diabetes, or depression.

... The more simple genetic diseases like Huntingtons disease turn out to be quite rarecommon diseases are usually a mix of heavily genetic, somewhat genetic, and not at all genetic. For example, 1% of people with Alzheimer disease (and so about 1 person in a 1000 in the population) have an early onset form that is very strongly genetic. If you have the gene variation involved, the only way you wont get the disease in your 40s or 50s is to die first from something else. About 4% of the population have two copies of a genetic variation that gives them a 50 to 80% chance of getting AD, compared with the overall average 10% or so. About 20% of the population has one copy of that variant and has about a 20 to 40 percent chance. About 2% of the population has two copies of a different version of the same gene and seem to have zero chance of getting AD. And most people with Alzheimer disease have no copies of any of the known, strong genetic risk factors for it. Thats what most common diseases are like; most behavioral traits will likely be even worse.

Glenn Cohen

Harvard Law School Faculty Director, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology & Bioethics, leading expert in bioethics and law

I do not love the term designer babies because it is imprecise. [In one sense], they are already here and have been for a long time. When [individuals] consider need to use a sperm donor for artificial insemination... they engage in a form of trait selection. The catalogues that feature sperm donors (donors in scare quotes because they are paid) recruited for sperm banks have already excluded 99% of applicants, and who is left tends to have very desirable health, intelligence, and beauty traits. The same is true for egg donors. So already parents using these technologies are designing their babies. And there is nothing to stop someone who wanted to from buying both sperm and egg from donors to maximize their ability to engage in trait selection. For individuals using IVF [in vitro fertilization], there is also the possibility of using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)to examine the embryos and screen out those predicted to have diseases or other problems and engage in sex selection. The next step on the horizon, written about recently in the MIT Technology Review is combining big data from whole genome sequencing and population databases to make predictions on non-disease traits as part of the PGD technique.

Some companies are either directly or indirectly building this into their pitch to investors as that report suggests, though also [the MIT Technology Review reports that some scientists are skeptical]: Some experts contacted by MIT Technology Review said they believed its premature to introduce polygenic scoring technology into IVF clinicsthough perhaps not by very much. Matthew Rabinowitz, CEO of the prenatal-testing company Natera, based in California, says he thinks predictions obtained today could be largely misleading because DNA models dont function well enough. But Rabinowitz agrees that the technology is coming.

Even if perfected this will only be available to individuals willing to go through IVF and PGD, costly in both time, money, and health risks. So I dont know how much uptake there will be in the near future. The more radical change would come if In Vitro Gametogenesis became cheap, safe, approved, and easy such that we could generate a large number of eggs without having to make women go through egg retrieval. I am a bit more skeptical it will be [as quick as Hank Greely suggests], but do think that such technology will be used in the future. Finally, if CRISPR gene editing becomes available as a therapeutic technique in the US, and we get much much better at targeting what to edit, it may be possible to do all this with fewer embryos generated and have more options since we can alter existing embryos instead of waiting to find an embryo that has the desired traits created through natural means. I am skeptical though that the regulatory system in the US will allow human use of this on embryos in the foreseeable future.

So the bottom line is on some definitions of designer babies they are here already and have been for some time. On other definitions I think the estimate is somewhere between 20 to 100 years depending on what you think about the progress of technology and the regulatory system in our country.

David Liu

When will designer babies become a realityif so, how many years from now, and what would that look like? For example, will there be a time when people will be able to edit their future childs genes to lead to greater strength, musical talent, mathematical genius?

Dietrich M. Egli

Does that imply that we are not even at a place where we can use gene-editing at all, for anything? CRISPR is not an effective tool yet?And what kind of adverse effects? Leading to mutations of some kind?

Do you think theres a natural balance of how many super-traits a person can possess, in a similar way to how when homo sapiens jaws shrank, it made more room in the skull for a larger brain? For example, would it offset the natural balance if math wizards were also born football players and possessed the musical talents of Mozart?

Dr. Robert Green

If, say, the United States outlaws that kinds of thing, do you think other countries might start offering services where you can edit for things like hair and eye color? Do you foresee that as an inevitable consumer service?

How quickly do you think this could happen, if the technology made it to the market, for consumers to use those services?

Advertisement

Continue reading at Gizmodo »