Embryonic modification – could we create designer babies?

Genetic modification of embryos has been the subject of heavy debate for many years. There are intense ethical arguments over the point at which life begins and how that life should be valued is purely subjective.

Image: Gabi Menashe

Image: Gabi Menashe

The possibility of starting work on genetically modified embryos has been in the pipeline for some years. This week, the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has given the go ahead for the Francis Crick Institute in Britain to be amongst the first to carry out these experiments. Although, it is poignant that the US still refuses to fund such projects.

Previously, only somatic gene therapy was permitted as any genetic modifications cannot be passed down to future generations. They only affect the patient suffering from the disease. However, with embryonic modifications, once the embryo develops into an adult and reaches child bearing age, the original modified genes will be passed onto their offspring.

The embryos will be obtained from women undergoing IVF donating their spare eggs. The current regulations are that after undergoing modification, the embryos cannot be implanted into a woman and are destroyed after 14 days at the blastocyst stage. This avoids the chance of a foetus developing and the risk of designer babies.

The purpose of these studies is to monitor which genes are active during embryonic development to improve the success rates of IVF and reduce miscarriages. Animals cannot be used for these experiments as many human specific genes become active after fertilisation that are not present in other animals.

The first experiment to be done by Dr. Niakan (who also applied for permission for embryonic studies) is to block the so-called OCT4 gene which is active in cells that ultimately form the foetus rather than the placenta. CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing will be used to find, cut, remove and insert or modify the DNA coding sequence for OCT4. The technique has already been used by Chinese scientists on unhealthy embryos that would have otherwise been discarded.

Disease predisposing genes can be found and rectified in embryos to prevent children being born with life limiting diseases, possibly eradicating diseases such as cystic fibrosis before birth.

After the recent approval for three parented babies and now embryonic testing, could the future hold the dreaded ‘designer babies’ based on Aryan views?

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