This week big news in the medical world was announced: for the first time ever, a “country has considered the DNA-altering technique in embryos and approved it“. In effect, scientists have been given the green light to ‘edit’ human embryos in a bid to better understand the earliest stages of human life. The results could prove invaluable, and yet talk seems to swirl around the dangers of paving the way for “designer babies”.
Whilst it’s undeniable that “GM babies” is a highly controversial and contentious topic, not just in the medical field, are our fears about what this new research signals founded?
Largely, no. When people use the term “designer baby”, we tend to conjure images of couples browsing catalogues and ticking off the “perfect” characteristics for their future child: brown hair ✓, athletic ✓, blue eyes ✓ and so on. This is categorically not however, the aim of research to be led by Dr Kathy Niakan, and in choosing to focus on the minuscule possibility (legally and ethically speaking) of this vision becoming a reality in the immediate or near future, the immense value of the research at hand is being belittled by scaremongering.
Scaremongering might seem like a harsh term to use in this particular circumstance, but given the nature of the research as described by Dr Niakan, it’s hard to refute that certain sectors of the press haven’t played upon unfounded fears – namely The Mirror, The Daily Mail & The Sun, who coincidently used my favourite doomsday style headline of them all…
“Designer babies are coming to the UK: Scientists bid to engineer DNA despite ethical fears”
At this point it’s also worth addressing the fact that when people talk about designer babies, they are generally referring to a human whose aesthetic appearance has been biologically and artificially modified. There is absolutely no aesthetic angle to the research: it is purely to better understand how embryos develop. Similarly, the research is solely experimental at this stage and it will be illegal to implant the modified embryos into a womb.
So what will it actually be used for, or rather what are the possible end goals for the research in real life application [if it ever reaches that stage]? Well, the project will most likely be used to improve IVF methodology, and potentially in turn increase IVF success rates. Funnily enough, IVF or “test-tube” babies, have a similarly turbulent legal and ethical history to the embryo research set to take place. In spite of fears at the time about what IVF could signal, it is now a widely accepted technique that is used across the world.
A few final words then: there are strict regulatory bodies that consider the legal, ethical and social implications of scientific, medical research. These regulatory bodies follow stringent rules and procedures, in other words gaining approval is no mean feat. Being such high profile research, you can also guarantee that the findings will be closely monitored and analysed by experts, the media and the public from across the world – there will be no bending of the rules.
NB: For those of you that are interested, in China doctors have already used genetic engineering (the CRISPR/Cas9 technique) to correct a blood disorder in a human embryo, though approval was sought after the fact [Prof. Robin Lovell-Badge].