The New GMO Mandate — Government Modified Babies

genetically modified babies

Story at-a-glance -

  • In February 2017, the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine stated DNA in germline cells, such as embryos, eggs and sperm, may be altered to eliminate genetic diseases
  • Gene-editing technology is moving so fast that innovations are occurring before their full implications are known or fully understood
  • So far no one has attempted to take the next step — creating pregnancies with genetically engineered embryos, but the early studies are paving the way for it to one day happen
  • In what’s being described as the “holy grail” of genetic engineering, synthetic biology has been used to create a semi-synthetic organism that stores and retrieves increased genetic information

By Dr. Mercola

As gene-editing technology becomes more advanced, the idea of “designer babies” being created in a lab for those who can afford them is no longer a plot relegated to Hollywood films. It’s becoming a backdrop to the 21st century, bringing with it tough questions about whether it’s ethical to tinker with a baby’s genes and, perhaps even more controversial, whether it’s immoral not to.

At the heart of this issue is CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, a technology that allows scientists to go into your DNA and essentially cut and paste it at specified places. Progress is being made in tackling genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and certain forms of blindness and muscular dystrophy, particularly with the invention of CRISPR-Cas9.1

Will Parents Become Mandated to Gene-Edit Their Babies?

By modifying an enzyme called Cas9, the gene-editing capabilities are significantly improved, in some cases reducing the error rate to "undetectable levels." While experts have previously said CRISPR and Cas9 should not be used on human babies, a report released in February 2017 by the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine stated DNA in germline cells, such as embryos, eggs and sperm, may be altered to eliminate genetic diseases.2

The stipulation was that the technology be used only to correct disease or disability, not enhance health or ability.3 Many, including retired bioethicist Ronald Green of Dartmouth College, support the use of gene-editing technology for the purpose of eliminating genetic diseases, but what about non-disease conditions like poor impulse control to increase a child’s opportunities in life?

Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at the University of Oxford, told Science News he believes parents would be morally obligated to use gene-editing technology to keep their children healthy.

“If CRISPR could … improve impulse control and give a child a greater range of opportunities, then I’d have to say we have the same moral obligation to use CRISPR as we do to provide education, to provide an adequate diet …”4 Still, there are many concerns with germline gene therapy, which allows inserted genes to be passed on to future generations.

Who will decide, for instance, what conditions are deemed abnormal or worthy of gene editing? Further, the technology can only be done via in vitro fertilization (IVF), putting it out of reach of many people financially and potentially expanding inequality gaps. On the other hand, some argue that countries with national health care could provide free coverage for gene editing, possibly helping to reduce inequalities.5

And where will the proverbial line be drawn? Will people one day choose to create babies with greater intellectual ability, improved physical fitness, or a certain color of eyes or hair? Creating genetically enhanced people could also lessen people’s tolerance for those who are different.

Iceland Brags About ‘Eliminating’ Down Syndrome

In Iceland, Down syndrome births are becoming increasingly rare, with just one or two children born with the condition each year, a statistic that’s reported much as a triumph. It’s not, however, that the country has discovered a “cure” for the condition, but rather that they’ve succeeded in nearly eliminating this population of people from the country, a phenomenon some may describe as genocide.

In essence, Down syndrome is disappearing in Iceland, but not by nature or happenstance. In Iceland, up to 85 percent of pregnant women receive prenatal screening tests to detect chromosome abnormalities, including Down syndrome. Close to 100 percent of women who receive a positive result end up terminating their pregnancy, CBS News reported.6

Other countries also have high termination rates for fetuses with Down syndrome: 67 percent in the U.S., 77 percent in France and 98 percent in Denmark, for instance. “Heavy-handed genetic counseling” has been said to play a role in Iceland’s high elimination rate of Down syndrome pregnancies, with one counselor stating, "We don’t look at abortion as murder … We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had huge complications."7

In the U.S., some states, including North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana, have passed laws prohibiting doctors from performing abortions for the sole reason of a Down syndrome diagnosis. Yet others maintain it’s a woman’s constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy.

“I’m going to be blunt here: That was not the child I wanted,” wrote one woman who says she would have chosen abortion had genetic testing revealed Down syndrome during her pregnancy. “That was not the choice I would have made. You can call me selfish, or worse, but I am in good company. The evidence is clear that most women confronted with the same unhappy alternative would make the same decision.”8

On the other hand, a study that asked people with Down syndrome about their self-perception stated “they share similar hopes and dreams as people without DS [Down syndrome]” and “overall, the overwhelming majority of people with DS surveyed indicate they live happy and fulfilling lives.”9 As the prevalence of not just genetic testing but also the ability to do something about the outcome increases, the questions of which diseases and conditions count as life-threatening or worthy of intervention will only continue to grow.

Synthetic Biology Is the ‘Holy Grail’ of Genetic Engineering

We are better learning how to engineer living systems, for better or worse. In what’s being described as the “holy grail” of genetic engineering, synthetic biology has been used to create a semi-synthetic organism that stores and retrieves increased genetic information. Researchers wrote in the journal Nature:10

Since at least the last common ancestor of all life on Earth, genetic information has been stored in a four-letter alphabet that is propagated and retrieved by the formation of two base pairs. The central goal of synthetic biology is to create new life forms and functions, and the most general route to this goal is the creation of semi-synthetic organisms whose DNA harbors two additional letters that form a third, unnatural base pair.”

In 2014, researchers including Floyd Romesberg of the Scripps Research Institute, created the first semi-synthetic organism by recreating the genetic material for a strain of E. coli, although the microbe wasn’t stable. In the latest triumph, the researchers were able to create a semi-synthetic organism that not only was stable but could produce artificial proteins similarly to its “unmodified parents.”

The creation brings with it potentially limitless possibilities that semi-synthetic organisms could one day access a range of functions that are not attainable by natural organisms. “In the near term, he [Romesberg] said, scientists could harvest such proteins from synthetic cells and use them to assist with drug delivery, or to make protein therapeutics, like insulin, more effective.” He continued to The Washington Post:11

“But an even more distant — and more enticing — application involves not just the proteins, but the lab-made microbes that produce them: ‘What if you allow the bacteria to harbor this unnatural information retrieve the protein and use it for something interesting?’ Romesberg mused. ‘Could you develop organisms that have new properties’ — like the ability to siphon up oil spills or eat cancer cells? ‘Could we develop cells that can do things their natural counterparts can't?’”

Technology Will Proceed Despite Unanswered Ethical Questions

Gene-editing technology is moving so fast that innovations are occurring before their full implications are known or fully understood. In 2015, Chinese researchers used CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos — a first.12 That same year in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health does not provide funding for studies on gene-editing technologies in human embryos, stating:13

“The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain.

These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.”

Yet, the scientific consensus seems to be changing, such that a number of prominent scientists now agree that clinical trials of human germline editing should proceed, provided they are for purposes of treating series diseases or disabilities. Meanwhile, research has progressed, with researchers correcting a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos 67 percent of the time in one study14 and, in another, using CRISPR/Cas9 to investigate gene function in the earliest stages of human development.15

A CRISPR clinical trial in people with cancer has also taken place in China, and the technology has been used to edit human embryos made from sperm from men carrying inherited disease mutations. The researchers successfully altered the DNA in a way that would eliminate or correct the genes causing the inherited disease.16 If the embryos were implanted into a womb and allowed to grow, the process would result in the first genetically modified children — and any engineered changes would be passed on to their own children.

So far no one has attempted to take the next step — creating pregnancies with genetically engineered embryos, but the early studies are paving the way for it to one day happen. “We can be certain that, within a few years, gene editing technology will become safe enough for doctors to correct a mutation for cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease in a human embryo, and from that embryo produce a healthy child who won't have to worry about passing on a devastating disease to her children,” Pacific Standard reported.17

“But once we begin correcting genetic diseases with germline editing, there will be no technical barrier to using this technology for less medically urgent needs, as long as would-be parents of genetically enhanced children are willing to conceive by in vitro fertilization.

By that point, advances in the technology will have almost certainly outpaced any ethical debate over how to use it … Even if certain types of germline edits wind up banned in the U.S., they will certainly be available elsewhere in the world.”18

What Does the Future Hold?

As was the case with genetic engineering of food, the technology will continue to progress beyond the reaches of regulation and ethics. Even with barriers in place, the creation of a gene-edited person is likely to be attempted, some say “at any moment.”19 It’s both an exciting and frightening prospect, especially since the technology isn’t perfect and may accidently hit other parts of the genome.

One study searched for unintended mutations, based on a separate study that used CRISPR-Cas9 to restore sight in blind mice by correcting a genetic mutation. The researchers sequenced the entire genome of the CRISPR-edited mice to search for mutations. In addition to the intended genetic edit, they found more than 100 additional deletions and insertions along with more than 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations, with unknown consequences.20

Further, former director of national intelligence James Clapper listed genome editing on the list of “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation,”21 which goes to show what could happen if such technology is misused. While it stands to be a game-changer in the future of human health, in the big picture such gains do not come without potentially catastrophic risks.