What is a “designer baby?”
A “designer baby” is a baby whose genetic code has been manipulated to code for certain desirable traits.
Although it sounds like science fiction, on September 27th of this year, it was reported that, back in April, a child with three biological parents was born through a process of genetic engineering.
How is this possible?
The would-be mother feared passing on a rare neurological disease caused by faulty mitochondria, the cell’s energy producers, to her potential children. Turning to medical professionals, one team proposed removing her mitochondria and replacing it with that of another woman, thereby bringing a third person into the process. The procedure called for taking the nucleus from the mother’s egg cell, leaving behind the unhealthy mitochondria, and implanting it in a donor’s egg whose nucleus has been removed, but whose healthy mitochondria were still intact. This combined egg was then fertilized by the father’s sperm and implanted in the mother’s uterus. Remarkably, the pregnancy was successful, and the baby is reported to be healthy.
Regulation in Mexico is not as stringent as it is in the United States, where both the ethics and potential danger of such a procedure would be scrutinized. One of the dangers is that there is no guarantee that none of the faulty mitochondria will be transferred into the donor’s egg. In fact, even after the procedure, a small percentage – less than 5% – of faulty mitochondria remained. Although this is a small percentage, it shows that the procedure does not eliminate the risk of disease completely, it just reduces it.
Because not enough research has been done to enable scientists to truly understand the technique, rushing ahead and producing a living human being raises ethical concerns. At the end of the day, scientists truly do not know the efficacy of such procedures. Will the small percentage of unhealthy mitochondria have any effects? Can the number of such mitochondria increase over time? The problem is, we don’t have answers to such questions, and yet the procedure has been done.
What does this mean for science and mankind?
Although, yes, it is incredible that this couple was able to have a baby, such procedures are quite controversial. Is this simply a way of preventing a disease, or is it much more than that?
Imagine that you are an architect and that you are designing a house. You want to design the best possible house that you can, and so you plan it out exactly as you want it to be: three stories tall, painted white with green window shutters, etc. Now imagine, if you could similarly design your own child: blonde haired, athletic, intelligent, etc. While the genetic modification in the case of the three-parent baby was used to prevent a terrible disease, the direction in which genomic genetic engineering is heading.
In vitro fertilization, or IVF, is the method of creating a human zygote in a laboratory, or fertilizing an egg cell outside of the human body. While this process has been around since the late 1960s, with the first “test tube” baby born in 1978, it is only in recent years that the idea of designer babies has really taken off. In 2015, a paper was published discussing the use of CRISPR/CAS9, a gene editing system, in human zygotes. Essentially, the paper showed the potential for the ability to cut out unwanted DNA and replace it with a different template of the gene. What this means, is that a person could be given a degree of control over the traits of the baby they hope to have. Unlike the mitochondrial replacement procedure, this form of genomic editing is not specifically aiming to override a single problem. Instead, it gives the potential for the editing of any part of a gene.
What many, therefore, struggle to decide is, where do we draw the line? Although science has not reached the point where one can truly “design their own baby”, examples such as the “three parent” baby and the CRISPR/CAS9 system show that it could certainly become possible. So, what do you think? Aren’t you supposed to love your child no matter what? How much control should we have over our future children’s traits? Are dangerous procedures worth the risk? What does this mean for evolution?
Josie Cummings ’18