There is a cheesy martial arts movie that came out in the 1980s called American Ninja 2 that I loved watching as a kid (what’s this have to do with creating super babies? Hold on, I’m getting to that…) The bad guy was a drug lord that kidnapped a genetic scientist and had him develop an army of humans that were stronger, smarter, and free of disease. Needless to say, it was a bad idea, and while it might have only been a movie, the possibility to create the “perfect” human is closer than you might think. In fact, it’s here.
In last month’s issue of MIT Technology Review was a piece by Antonio Regalado on such topic and how it’s causing one of the most heated debates among scientists. Largely, the positives are that creating embryos free of family inherited diseases like Alzheimer’s, but giving people the freedom to develop the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Olympic athlete, genius baby of their choice raises some serious ethics questions.
Germ-line engineering is already present in livestock where George Church and Luhan Yang founded a small biotechnology company for editing DNA through a process called CRISPR-Cas9, where they slide in beneficial genes to the embryo and remove the bad ones. When asked if it would be possible to do the same for humans, Yang offered up a simple “yes, of course”. Of course, the fear is that this sort of engineering is a path toward a dystopia of designer babies, and later toward that army of superhuman ninja warriors mentioned earlier.
Most scientists agree that there are ethical problems with this, and a dozen countries, not including the United States, have banned germ-line engineering. The European Union’s convention on human rights and biomedicine said it would be a crime against human dignity. Oh, all this was declared BEFORE it was actually possible to do this DNA editing.
Currently at least three other centers in the United States are working on it, as are scientists in China and in the U.K. with a biotechnology company called OvaScience. According to experts in the field, altering genes for maximum benefit isn’t as difficult as it was once thought to be either.
To find out how it could be done, I visited the lab of Guoping Feng, a biologist at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, where a colony of marmoset monkeys is being established with the aim of using CRISPR to create accurate models of human brain diseases. To create the models, Feng will edit the DNA of embryos and then transfer them into female marmosets to produce live monkeys.
But CRISPR is not perfect—and it would be a very haphazard way to edit human embryos, as Feng’s efforts to create gene-edited marmosets show. To employ the CRISPR system in the monkeys, his students simply inject the chemicals into a fertilized egg, which is known as a zygote—the stage just before it starts dividing.
Not surprisingly, most adults are just as conflicted as the science community on genetic editing, with a 2014 poll showing that 83% of adults had a problem with using the science to make babies more intelligent, but only 50% had an issue with using genetic modification to reduce diseases.
Isn’t the goal of medicine to make us healthier, to stave off illness? If incorporating some radical science to reaching that goal is possible, isn’t it worth doing? Dr. Feng certainly things so.
“To me, it’s possible in the long run to dramatically improve health, lower costs. It’s a kind of prevention,” he said. “It’s hard to predict the future, but correcting disease risks is definitely a possibility and should be supported. I think it will be a reality.”
There are other developments in altering human DNA as well. One strategy that scientists are working on in Boston involves using stem cells to produce eggs and sperm in the lab, because unlike embryos, stem cells can be grown and multiplied. It’s essentially a three-step recipe to creating the ideal life form: first, edit the stem cells genes, then turn them into an egg or sperm, and finally, produce offspring. Just imagine, one day procreating might seem trivial and a couple will just pick out their child from the J.P. Morgan Human Bank.
The company working on this development, OvaScience, was founded by David Sinclair whom Time Magazine named one of the “100 Most Influential People” last year. So far the company hasn’t reported any viable eggs, but it’s more a matter of when and not if, according to Sinclair who has also worked with George Church. Sinclair says that “it’s still experimental, but there is no reason to expect it won’t be possible in coming years”.
The technology might still be in its infancy, but it has plenty of criticism, one being that a choice of editing an embryo for only the best genes would be incredibly costly upwards of $100,000 and could lead toward a social imbalance of “designer babies.”
The American Medical Association, for instance, holds that germ-line engineering shouldn’t be done “at this time” because it “affects the welfare of future generations” and could cause “unpredictable and irreversible results.”
High-tech eugenics has its campaigners as well, like Nick Bostrom, author of the book “Superintelligence,” which examined if humans could use reproductive technology to improve human intellect. Bostrom argues that human problem-solving ability is a factor in every challenge we face, and giving even a small percentage of the population some extra smarts is worth considering.
All interesting points brought up in the MIT Technology review article, and while editing human genetics certainly seems both alluring and terrifying, it’s something that science will have to decide just how far is too far. There’s already a serious economic divide in the world, and allowing the super rich to genetically engineer their offspring would likely just widen that gap. On the other hand, having a few extra highly intelligent brainiacs figuring out mankind’s biggest societal problems might not be a bad thing either.
As Jennifer Doudna, professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley points out though, that’s the purpose of human evolution. “There are moral and ethical issues, but one of the profound questions is just the appreciation that if germ-line editing is conducted in humans, that is changing human evolution.”