Can Genome Editing Give Us ‘Designer Babies‘?
In this era of personalisation and customisation, we have everything ranging from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, tailored to meet our needs and whims. Some of the only things in life over which we have no control over are how we can optimize our unborn baby’s health and well-being. But advances in medicine might be changing that aspect as well. We might be saying hello to ‘designer babies’ at some point in the not-so-distant future, all thanks to the phenomenon of genome editing.
Imagine if humans had the ability to pick the genes they wish, choosing what traits to pass on to their children and which ones to leave out. In cases where diseases are passed on from one generation to the next, this gene selection would allow us to identify and alter or remove any genes carrying hereditary diseases. This would ensure that the next generation does not carry them and pass them on. This concept is known as genome editing and it is seen as one of the next big chapters in human evolution.
In simple terms, genome editing is a type of genetic engineering which lets us add, remove or modify the DNA of a living organism. Though the technology involved is quite complex and still in its nascent stages, genome editing has been used successfully in plants. Genetically modified fruits or plants are a common thing. The same theory is now being applied to human beings as well.
But such technologies raise a lot of ethical questions because “editing” implies manipulating sperm, eggs and embryos. To many people, this is equivalent to playing God and, hence, unacceptable. Scientists have conflicting opinions on the issue. Bioethicist R Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA said, “Caution is absolutely needed, but being cautious does not mean prohibition.” “It is felt to be unfair”, says Lovell-Badge who co-authored a report on genome editing at Francis Crick Institute in London, “It’s the same as using drugs to cheat.”
Currently, genome editing is being used to save lives from deadly diseases, ranging from hemophilia to cancer. But is it right to use this technology to modify babies and tinker with the natural order? Will such genetically modified humans truly be able to lead healthier and longer lives? There is a lot of scope for the technique to be misused. For example, people might be able to choose their baby’s gender and create imbalances in sex ratio which could lead to further complications. Also, if all parents (especially in India) chose their babies to be intelligent and good at studies, there will be no more artists or sportsmen.
These conflicts facing scientists currently are forcing them to hold back from pursing genome editing more aggressively. Countries around the world have different laws regarding genetic engineering, but we haven’t yet reached the stage of running clinical trials for the general public.
Genome editing forces us to think of our evolution as a species. Over the ages medical science has helped raise the average lifespan of humans from a mere 35 years to nearly a hundred years today. Not every medical procedure was universally adopted. The experts made their voices heard, followed by the general public. Like any new technology, genome editing/engineering has the potential to be used for good or bad. In the wrong hands, it could be used to wipe out the human race. But when used properly, it has the potential to allow us to choose and modify certain traits in ourselves, battle the effects of ageing and even double our current lifespan.
Only time will unravel the answers to these complex bioethical questions. For now, all young would-be parents still count on the good old way of leading a healthy lifestyle to ensure a healthy baby when they are ready to give birth. So, though designer babies might be a thing of the future, it is certainly no reason to neglect our health and lifestyle in the present.