(Photo by Anastasiya Gepp from Pexels)
Yup, you read the title right, the world’s first (known) designer babies are here. In November 2018, a scientist in China modified the genes in the embryos of twin baby girls — supposedly to ensure they would be resistant to HIV. These modifications are referred to as ‘heritable human genome editing’ (HHGE). Dr. He Jiankui used a set of gene-editing tools and processes collectively referred to as ‘CRISPR’ to accomplish this feat. Although China is pushing the ethical boundaries on technology research such as HHGE, this was a step too far. Dr. Jiankui was thrown in jail for three years for crossing the line and, more likely, for embarrassing the Communist Party. They also banned all similar research and experimentation.
We covered the CRISPR technology in previous articles, so in this article we will focus on the implications of HHGE on human development.
Socrates and Aristotle Pondered Genetics
Humans have contemplated human genetics for thousands of years. Socrates, Epicurus, Aristotle and Hippocrates all had theories which formed our early understanding of human reproduction and derived traits. Epicurus postulated that both males and females contributed to hereditary characters (‘sperm atoms’) and identified dominant and recessive types of inheritance. Not bad for just observing families and their progeny. These theories were applied to other fields, such as agriculture and animal husbandry. These ancient precepts are still in use today, such as crossbreeding to add or remove certain characteristics for domesticated livestock and crops.
Madmen and Their Victims
With every scientific advancement, there’s abuse. Genetic theories were also applied to unwilling humans. Slave owners, without any moral concern whatsoever, applied this method in their attempts to breed stronger slaves to work their lands.
Hitler and his minions were convinced they could create the perfect Aryan race based on Nazi ideology by breeding Germans they selected as racially pure and healthy. In their zeal to create their ‘master race’, they conducted horrific experiments on large numbers of prisoners to advance their pseudo-science, most of whom died horribly.
Genetic scientists have pursued the Holy Grail of editing out diseases and ‘undesirable’ traits at the embryonic stage. On the one hand, we would all applaud the first scientist to reliably edit out genes which are responsible for MLS. An edit ensuring a life-long, full head of perfect hair? I wouldn’t mind it — but maybe that’s cheating, and certainly not worth the risk. The maverick Chinese doctor took the leap supposedly to make babies immune to HIV. What’s so bad about that?
Science of The Blind
Here’s what: Dr. Jiankui, and every genetic scientist on planet Earth, doesn’t fully understand all the unintended consequences of editing genes. Dr. Jiankui may have had good intentions for his decision to recklessly edit those baby girl embryos, but he may also have created or triggered other unintended traits, such as cancer or some other life-threatening genetic disorder. He is a blind man in the Indian fable, holding the tail of an elephant, trying to guess what animal it is.
With all the discoveries and research done on our DNA to-date, we still do not know what most of our DNA does, or all the combinations of genes responsible for our traits. Just over the mountain in Eugene, evolutionary biologist Patrick Phillips at the University of Oregon cautions that scientists have yet to determine how evolutionary forces shape any genome, including ours. As far-fetched as it sounds, messing with our DNA may inadvertently alter human evolution.
The twins, Lulu and Nana, were born in October 2018 and are being closely monitored by the scientific community. Some research seems to indicate Dr. Jiankui’s goal of HIV immunity may not have been achieved. Although he did the edits immediately after embryonic formation, it may have occurred after its single-cell form, which may have negated the intended outcome.
The MIT Technology Review published an article, “China’s CRISPR twins might have had their brains inadvertently enhanced,” after research from experiments on mice with the exact same edit seemed to show increased cognitive abilities. Another report also suggested the same edit may have significantly shortened the twins’ lifespan. It feels like we are watching scientists betting on “any seven” at a craps table. It’s tempting, but the odds are terrible.
Since the birth of modern genetics, scientists have noted concerns and urged restraint in HHGE research. After the China incident, a 200-page report was issued by the U.S. National Academies and the UK Royal Society concluding that heritable genome editing of human embryos with DNA-editing tools like CRISPR is not safe. Further, HHGE should not be used in IVF (In-Vitro Fertilization) clinics until the scientific community fully comprehends the human genome.
The paper suggests a staged rollout with stringent guidelines. For example, its use may be acceptable in certain cases, such as a couple wishing to ensure their baby doesn’t inherit their known debilitating genetic defects (ex. Sickle-Cell Anemia), where there is no other reasonable medical alternative, and the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Supply and Demand
If there are people willing to pay, there will always be rogue scientists willing to edit embryos for a buck (more like a million bucks). If people are willing to risk going to jail by spending over $500,000 bribing college coaches and professors to get their kids into college, I imagine wagering a few million to create the perfect child seems reasonable to them.
Some have good intentions — like making sure a genetic disorder is not passed on to their offspring, such as MLS. Others may want to have the ‘perfect’ baby, whatever that means. Maybe it’s a cleft in the chin, blonde hair or a height of six feet or more. Some might strive to create the next Einstein or Beethoven. Our collective challenge is defining a line that will always be fuzzy and changes at the whim of social trends and rogue agents.
Curing disease is noble — taking care of my bald patch, not so much. Either way, let’s wait until we know all the puzzle pieces before we play with God-like powers.
Find Out More
About the Author
Preston Callicott was CEO of Five Talent Software based in Bend and now SVP at Effectual Inc., which recently acquired Five Talent. Preston is optimistic that tech will elevate humanity, but also considers himself a “Tech Humanist” — a techie who wants to make sure we embed unbiased human ethics, morals and ideals in all systems we create, especially those based on Artificial Intelligence.