Are Designer babies the future of science?

With popularity of Gene editing techniques, one area that has gathered attention is the use of this technology for modifying genes of unborn babies. Recently, a Chinese researcher asserted that he created world’s first gene edited “twin” babies. While he claims that the genetically modified babies were resistant to HIV infection, his case has particularly attracted a lot of criticism for the ethical grounds on which the work was carried out. His experiments were questioned since they were not backed with sufficient research publications and were performed unethically.

Is Gene Surgery such a hype?

Genetic editing basically refers to modifications of sections of the DNA by adding, deleting or replacing new segments. This can be performed in either adult somatic cells or embryonic cells of the body. Genetic editing has strong potential of curing a myriad of inherited genetic disorders including sickle cell anemia, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy etc. Although human trials have been very few and controlled, the existing outcomes have been promising and given a ray of hope to many. Currently these diseases have posed life threatening complications and have been treated only symptomatically. Editing the DNA will cure the root cause of the disease. However, there will be still chances of transmission of the disease to the next generation. Gene editing of the embryos on the other hand will be a permanent solution and is referred to as germline gene editing. This can completely eliminate infectious and genetically inherited diseases. This is not just applicable to the disease-associated genes but all genes of the body. This means we can alter height, intelligence and other parameters to create ‘designer’ babies. This can have implications in widening a gap in the society where those who can afford will generate ‘superior’ babies that are artificially selected in the evolution race.

Concerns

Safety: Although gene editing has been hyped as a miracle technology, there have been safety concerns associated. One major concern is that technology may not as accurate and occasionally lead to off-targeting. Moreover, a single gene may be involved with more than one function in the body. For example, the CCR5 gene targeted by Chinese scientists for HIV resistance is also linked to memory. This emphasizes the need for thorough investigations. Moreover, germline editing is even more dangerous as any error made will be permanent and irreversible in nature. Recent research has generated improvised versions of this technology that are more accurate but precautionary measures must be taken. It is essential to validate the studies in pre-clinical trials and prove the safety of technology before any clinical application.

Ethical concerns: Application of gene editing pose several ethical concerns. Countries have different regulatory laws and embryonic research is also illegal in many. Therefore, before performing any trials, appropriate ethical permissions and approvals must be taken.

The Bottom line is that before embracing any new technology, we must have a balanced view of the underlying risks and challenges associated.

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