CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats, is a relatively new, revolutionary gene editing technique which has shown real potential for manipulating the human genome. The main concept of CRISPR is to exploit the ability bacteria have of incorporating invading viral DNA into their own genome, using the CRISPR/Cas (CRISPR-association protein) system, in order to recognise and fight the virus in the future. Researchers have found a way of using this immune defence to target a specific DNA sequence, ‘cut’ it out using a Cas protein and incorporate a new piece of DNA, like the bacteria does with the viral DNA. This diagram explains it quite well:
Currently, this genetic tool is showing great promise in preliminary research for its use in treating human disease. In 2016, a team lead by Dr. Jacob Corn in California were able to correct the mutant gene, beta-globin, which is known to cause sickle cell disease, in human stem cells, alleviating symptoms. Another team based in China replaced a gene which carried a beta-thalassemia mutation, causing an often fatal blood disorder, but here the modification was conducted on actual human embryos. Whilst work on human tissues, such as the case in both of these studies, is controversial itself, the research is merely a gateway to CRISPR’s full potential.
One day, when the techniques are perfected, who’s to say it won’t just be disease genes that are being targeted? If we have the ability, why can’t we change a gene that contributes to eye colour or intelligence? All combined together, it’s a manual for a DIY IVF designer baby. Now, that is one scary thought. Considering a religious argument, who are we to play God and manipulate human life like that? We should respect all individuals, regardless of intellectual ability or how aesthetically pleasing they are. One very real problem that could arise from such a technology becoming the norm is genetic classism. Those individuals who do not have the ‘best’ genes could be deemed a lower social class and prejudiced against, particularly considering that, at least in its early days, only the wealthy will be able to afford it. With my genetic brain on, if there’s a ‘trend’ meaning that lots of babies are made with certain genes the same at similar times, it could lead to inbreeding. Whilst they’re not immediately related, inbreeding is the mating of two very genetically similar individuals, which could happen with these ‘trends’, with detrimental consequences for the resulting baby including a number of genetic disorders.
However, on the other hand, if we have such a technology, then why shouldn’t we use it? By ridding terrible genetic disorders from our genomes and selecting ‘healthier’ genes, we would be reducing medical bills and freeing up hospitals, a strain the U.K. in particular is feeling. In addition, it could be argued that designer babies may even aid evolution. Yes, it does limit genetic diversity by eradicating the bad mutations, but people will be living longer and passing on healthier genes, making humans a more successful species. Finally, of course, we have to respect the autonomy and free will of individuals to do what they want.
If there’s a message to learn from all of my previous posts, it’s that people are always going to push ethical and moral boundaries, and designer babies is the current big technology being tested. If CRISPR technology is legalised worldwide for clinical use, it’s only going to be a matter of time before designer babies do happen. Ultimately, the biggest comfort to rely on is that designer babies would not (at least I hope not) be compulsory and as much as those who have the free will to choose to partake in such an option, there will be many who are against it also and will not use CRISPR for any purpose other than medical reasons.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27733558 (CRISPR/Sickle cell original paper)
http://genome.cshlp.org/content/24/9/1526 (CRISPR/Beta-thalassemia original paper)
https://designerbabiesethics.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/the-cons-of-designer-babies/ (An interesting pro/con blog on designer babies)