Friday, November 30, 2012

Designer Babies: Boon or Bane?

Babies! Babies! That's what's on my mind lately. As I await the arrival of our 2nd one, I can't help but think over one question that a few people have surprisingly asked when I told them that we're not finding out the baby’s gender in advance. The question: Do you want a boy or a girl?
            The 21st century has brought us a kind of technological revolution that is befitting of a science novel's plot more than reality. Has any one of you read Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World? This futuristic book’s storyline revolves around designing children en masse, and subjecting them to conditioning at an early age to fit their class in society. Terrifying, especially since this future seems not too impossible. And to think that the book was written in 1931! With the aid of technology, we now have entered the age of genetic revolution where parents no longer have to wish for certain traits, but could potentially see them through. While you will not get any value judgment from me, let's give this topic some thought, shall we?

Hello, Dolly!
             I am sure that most of you have heard of cloning, and of Dolly the sheep who was the greatest banner man (banner sheep?) for this technique. What most people do not realize is that a clone is NOT an exact copy of the original. Unfortunately, when this word is uttered, people either think 1) "the end of the world is near, and we will be conquered by replicate beings à la Star Wars!!" OR 2) "Oh hey, I can bring back my most beloved hamster, Phosphorous!" Indeed, the first pet to be cloned was aptly named Copycat, or CC. Unfortunately, while CC is genetically identical to her donor, they are epigenetically different, giving CC a totally different look than her intended clone.

            Genetics is not as straightforward as some think, and many scientific uncertainties remain. A trait is the result of the interplay of genes. And, NO, you can't create a "master race" by designing babies through cloning because what you create are individuals. What then is the point of cloning? Clearly, it is geared for applied research. This technique can be used to regenerate brain cells for Alzheimer's disease, and could serve as a great alternative to transplantation with potentially lower risk of organ rejection.  Rest assured, no one is thinking of cloning individuals just to harvest their organs. With therapeutic cloning, DNA would be extracted from the person in need of a transplant to create embryonic stem cells that would be used to generate an organ that is a genetic match to the patient. But we’ll save the discussion concerning stem cells for another time.

            Aside from cloning, there are 2 other ethically charged areas in the age of genetic revolution. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, is also called embryo screening and involves the isolation of a cell to test for specific genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The controversy, however, begins with this question: where do we cross the line? If we can detect for susceptibility to cancer, should we? How about deafness or dwarfism, or know if a child will die at the age of 5?

            Going further, germ line therapy allows science to physically change the genetics of embryos. In this era, science is not only discovering defective genes, but genes that influence personality, or genetic markers that suggest future characteristics or traits. Consequently, it could then be possible to influence how a child will turn out by screening their genes at the embryonic stage. Some would argue that creating designer babies is a moral obligation. When parents are given the choice to select against personality flaws, the children could grow up with better ethics and less likely to pose harm to themselves and those around them. Imagine if Adam and Eve had a chance to peek into the future, and an opportunity to curb Cain's angry personality? Do you think they would have gone this route? Would Hitler's parents have used this screen if they had the foresight to know that their son would cause the death of millions of Jews and non-Jews alike? If advocating for a screen that would allow the selection of offspring that will contribute to a peaceful society, would this choice mean responsible parenting? Or is it simply playing g-d? Obviously, this is an ethical minefield! 

            Don't start revolting just yet. At this point, germ line therapy can be performed on simple organisms like bacteria, but not on mammals. While most of us would like our children to turn up as geniuses, we do not know enough about genetics to select for intelligence. Just think about this – It is rumored that Al Capone's IQ (200) is higher than Netanyahu’s (180), Einstein's (160) or Bill Gates (160). If you were presented with these 4 embryos without a crystal ball, you would probably choose the one with the highest IQ. Sure enough, under the same environment, you could end up with a vicious mob lord for a son.

*Published in Etz Hayim's Chronicle, December 2012 issue 

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