With gene editing now presenting such low risks that it can be used in human embryos, genetically-modified babies aren’t just the tales of science fiction. According to a newly published scientific paper, such “designer babies” are “ethically justifiable”, “highly desirable” and could become a possibility in about two years’ time.

Dr Kevin Smith, a bioethicist from Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, recently published an analysis on gene editing in the journal Bioethics. His paper claims that the risks of gene editing are now low enough to justify its use with human embryos, in order to prevent the transmission of gene-related diseases.

Dr Smith, the programme leader for Abertay’s Biomedical Science courses, said that current and further research into gene editing should offer hope to parents who are at risk of transmitting serious genetic diseases to any future children.

According to modern genetic studies, most human diseases that are genetic are the result of actions of several genes. Genetic modification is the only way to eliminate the genes that bring about those diseases.

Dr Smith said: “The human germline is by no means perfect, with evolution having furnished us with rather minimal protection from diseases that tend to strike in our later years, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia.

“GM techniques offer the prospect of protecting future people against these and other common disorders. This has previously been achieved to an extent in GM experiments on animals.

“If several common disorders could be avoided or delayed by genetically modifying humans, the average disease-free lifespan could be substantially extended.”

According to Dr Smith, humanity will benefit from the creation of genetically-modified people, provided that the issue is dealt with in an ethical manner, as public opinion on the controversial subject is mixed at best.

“Society is largely opposed to genetically modifying humans, and the negative publicity generated by the ethically problematic first-ever production of GM babies in China last year was strongly criticised by most geneticists and ethicists, further hardening attitudes against the creation of so-called ‘designer babies’.

“However, by delaying an ethically-sound move towards a world where we can reduce genetic disease, we are failing those who suffer through disease and debilitating conditions.

“If such negative attitudes to biomedical innovation had prevailed in the 1970s, the development and use of IVF – a massively beneficial medical technology – would have been severely delayed, and indeed might never have come to fruition,” said Dr Smith.

The issue is often doubted and disputed, stemming from fears that it could be used to create elite “designer babies”—genetically-modified babies created for non-therapeutic purposes.
In November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui shocked the world with an announcement that he had created the first two genetically-modified babies whose embryos were altered to make them immune to HIV.
While the science was marvellous and the implications astounding, many questioned the ethics behind the babies’ creation. Authorities in China have since determined that He broke the law, and scientists involved were then suspended.
In his paper, Dr Smith argues that genetically modifying embryos to prevent the transmission of serious genetic diseases is indeed ethical and, from a “utilitarian standpoint”, the “only conceivable way” to deal with disease-associated genes in an embryo.
Dr Smith wrote that genetic modification would allow doctors to help prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia, as well as other illnesses, in future humans. It would also stand to reason that that lifespans could be “substantially extended”, Smith said.
While there is still a stigma on genetic modification in society, Dr Smith believes that we are perhaps only less than two years’ away from ethically making genetically-modified babies.
Other bioethicists and scientists don’t quite agree with Dr Smith, noting that the risks of gene editing have not all been confirmed and are still being studied.

According to CNN, Joyce Harper of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Women’s Health told the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London that she does not believe that there are “adequate experiments that will ‘prove’ that this technology is safe”.

While Harper acknowledges that genome editing has “huge potential”, she wants “public debate and legislation to ensure we have carefully thought this through.”
Others have also criticised Dr Smith’s work. Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), an organisation whose aim is to improve the public’s understanding and view of genetics, said that Smith’s analysis is “flawed.”
In terms of what people think on the subject, Norcross noted that more work and research need to be done in order to better understand the risks of the technology.
Referencing the work of Chinese scientist He, Norcross told the SMC that “lessons should be learned” from his mistakes. “If this technology is to be put to similar use in future, then far higher scientific and ethical standards need to be met,” said Norcross. /TISG
See also  China jails scientist who gene-edited babies