Designing Human Beings: The Future of Genetic Engineering

Graphic by Carolyn Duan

The 1997 movie Gattaca presents a chilling dystopia where genetic engineering and eugenics created a cruel class system based on DNA.  In the movie, genetically engineered “valids” hold all the good jobs and ordinary “invalids” do manual labor. Once an abstract idea, scientific advancements have made it possible to conceive children using genetic engineering to make them smarter, stronger and healthier.

Although we are still many years away from understanding our genetic code or modifying complicated traits like intelligence, the first steps to genetically engineered human beings– dubbed “designer babies”– have already been taken. Technologies like CRISPR are making it easier and easier to edit genetic code. Many scientists hope to use such advanced technologies to cure genetic diseases– a goal most people can get behind. But others worry about the potential problems of genetically engineering humans. Is it ethical to modify the genes of human beings? Is it responsible or safe for us be modifying something we don’t fully understand? Is the possibility of “designer babies” and a class system based on genes so terrifying that all research in that direction be shut down?

Those questions are closer to needing answers than you might think. According to an article in New Scientist written by Jessica Hamzelou, a baby with DNA from three people has been born to Jordanian parents with the help of fertility specialist Dr. John Zhang.

The couple had already lost two children to a disease called Leigh syndrome. According to the Genetics Home Reference, Leigh syndrome is a disease caused by a genetic defect in the mitochondria, the organelle responsible for powering cells with cellular respiration. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing, breathing problems, brain damage and usually an early death. Dr. Zhang’s solution was a process called spindle nuclear transfer, in which the nucleus is stripped from one of the mother’s egg cells and inserted into a donor egg cell with its nucleus removed. The cell created has the nuclear genes of the mother and normal mitochondria from the donor. The newly created egg cell is then fertilized and implanted into the mother. The procedure  worked, despite an earlier failure, and the baby was born several months ago with no traces of Leigh syndrome thus far.

The news has sparked massive controversy. Many are opposed to the genetic modification of humans for religious and ethical reasons, raising the issue of consent by the child and whether destruction of embryos, often involved in genetics research and treatments, is acceptable.  Choosing between benign traits such as hair color or gender seems wrong to many: what right does someone have to design another human being? Others disagree, pointing out that parents already have massive influence over the development of their children.

Jeffrey Liu, a biologist who specializes in DNA sequencing for Paragon Genomics believes that it is wrong for humans to modify genes for nonmedical reasons.

“Traditionally, people have believed humans have no right to change life. To engineer humans– it is against nature,” Liu said. “For medical reasons, genetically modifying humans is perfectly acceptable– in fact, similar research has already been done, for example treating leukemia with gene therapy.”

Another fear is the possibility of a world where the rich will be able to precisely design their children to be superior and where genetic discrimination is rampant. After all, it’s more than likely that designer babies will be very expensive to produce, making the rich the first benefactors of such technology. There might be a world where your value as a human being literally depends on your parents’ wealth.

There are also myriad safety concerns about the possible unintended consequences of genetic editing, as we humans still do not precisely understand our genome.  Alterations to the human germline– in other words, alterations that could be passed on to future generations– are even more controversial, since mistakes would be damaging not just one person, but all of that person’s future offspring.

“Basic science research must be done first, because we simply don’t know what will happen in the future,” Liu said.  

These concerns have led Congress to ban such procedures in the U.S. and governments across the world to suppress similar research. Many scientists are excited about Zhang’s accomplishment, and see it as potentially opening the door to more research and development in the field. Zhang’s success could be the first of many life-saving procedures, heralding the end of genetic diseases that afflict millions. Indeed, the concern of many doctors is that fear of genetic engineering being taken too far might bury the development of cures to genetic diseases.

The issue of designer babies is difficult, both ethically and technologically. Although there is still much research to be done, it is important that we lay down the rules of what is or is not acceptable before it is abused. Technology such as designer babies can be beneficial to our society, but only if we use it intelligently and make responsible choices.