Debate rages as first designer babies born

Design my baby: As far as we know, gene editing technology has so far only been used to prevent diseases.

Should gene editing be banned? Chinese scientist He Jiankui claims to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies. The research, banned in many countries, has been widely condemned.

“Lulu and Nana came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies,” says Professor He Jiankui.

But the twin girls, who were reportedly born a few weeks ago, are very remarkable indeed.

When they were just embryos, Prof He altered the babies’ genetic code so that they will never be able to contract HIV. If confirmed, the pair are the first “designer babies” ever born. That’s not all: Prof He said another pregnancy with a gene-edited embryo is in its early stages.

His announcement provoked global outrage.

“If true, this experiment is monstrous,” said Professor Julian Savulescu from Oxford University. He warned that gene editing is associated with “genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer.”

Hundreds of Chinese scientists signed a letter on social media condemning the research, and the Prof He’s hospital said it has launched an investigation into the claims.

Scientists first worked out how to use CRISPR, the key to gene editing, in 2012. It works like “molecular scissors” to alter tiny strands of DNA.

In many countries, such as the UK and the US, it is illegal to use the technique to edit the DNA of babies, amid fears it could have unintended consequences for future generations. In the UK, any embryos experimented on must be destroyed immediately.

CRISPR co-creator Dr Jennifer Doudna hopes the technology will be used in the future to prevent genetic diseases. However, she shares widespread fears that it could be used to create enhanced human beings.

“People who are taller, or have a certain eye colour,” suggests Doudna, “it immediately brings up the whole area of eugenics”.

Throughout history, eugenicists have sought to “improve” the human population through selective breeding. The term is now associated with the racist aims of the Nazis.

But even now, CRISPR is hard to control.

After the development of CRISPR, the cost of genetic engineering fell by 99%. This means it is cheap and easy to use, which also makes it harder to regulate rogue operations like Prof He’s.

Should gene editing be banned?

Super-baby

Of course it should, say some. If designer babies were commonplace, would only the rich have access? Could big companies offer it as a perk for employees? It could create a two-tier society of superhumans against a poorer underclass. If we can choose qualities for our babies, we would lose our unique humanity.

Don’t speak too soon, respond others. Gene editing has a great power to do good in the world. As the technology develops, the risks will be erased, and its capacity to prevent disease will stop a great amount of death and suffering. Besides, a ban makes abuses of the technology more likely.

You Decide

  1. Should gene editing be banned? Why/why not?
  2. Will gene editing change what it means to be human?

Activities

  1. Write down the words and phrases you think of when you hear “designer babies”. Are they mostly positive or negative? Do you think “designer babies” is a fair way to describe gene-edited offspring? Discuss these questions as a class.
  2. Create a timeline showing the major developments in CRISPR and gene editing technology, up to Professor He’s alleged experiment.

Some People Say...

“Genes are like the story, and DNA is the language that the story is written in.”

Sam Kean

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On Sunday, Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies. The two girls, known as Lulu and Nana, were reported to have been born a few weeks ago. If the procedure was successful, they will not be able to contract HIV. The experiment was part of research involving couples, in which one partner is HIV positive. The announcement has sparked anger from scientists around the world.
What do we not know?
We cannot be 100% sure that Prof He is telling the truth as the experiment has not been independently verified. We also do not know what CRISPR technology might be used for in future. One day, parents could possibly choose their baby’s eye colour, athletic skills or even intelligence, but it may not be safe and it raises ethical dilemmas.

Word Watch

Embryos
A fertilised egg at the very early stages of development.
Genetic code
The DNA that influences your physical appearance and character. This combines with your environment to shape the person you are.
HIV
Human immunodeficiency virus. An infection passed through the blood that can develop into AIDs, which can prove fatal.
Designer babies
A term commonly used in the media to describe babies with edited genes. It often refers to a possible future in which parents can choose their baby’s physical appearance.
CRISPR
An abbreviation for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”.
Future generations
Because gene mutations caused by CRISPR technology would be passed down to offspring.
Enhanced
There is a difference between using CRISPR to prevent medical conditions, and using it to make improvements to otherwise healthy humans.

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