Creating ‘designer babies’ – genetically modified to have a lower risk of disease – is ‘highly desirable’ and should start within two years, a leading expert said yesterday.
Currently illegal in the UK, genetically editing embryos is necessary to correct imperfections in human DNA to extend human lifespans, it is claimed.
Dr Kevin Smith argues that parents having an IVF baby should be offered the option to have an implanted embryo ‘edited to reduce its risk of killer conditions such as dementia and cancer.
He argues the ‘ethically sound’ creation of so-called designer babies could begin within two years and spark a revolution in genetic modification.
Controversy was sparked last year when the first genetically modified babies were produced in China
Dr Smith from Abertay University has published analysis that found the risks of gene editing are now low enough to warrant its use with human embryos in the journal Bioethics.
Dr Smith argues that within two years, IVF babies could be edited to reduce their risks of complex diseases influenced by multiple genes, including heart disease and diabetes.
In a paper in the journal Bioethics, Dr Smith said screening would offer hope to parents who might be at risk of transmitting a serious risk of genetic disease to their children.
Dr Smith said: ‘The human germline is by no means perfect, with evolution having furnished us with rather minimal protection from diseases that tend to strike in our later years, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia.
‘GM techniques offer the prospect of protecting future people against these and other common disorders. This has previously been achieved to an extent in GM experiments on animals.
‘If several common disorders could be avoided or delayed by genetically modifying humans, the average disease-free lifespan could be substantially extended.’
This graphic reveals how, theoretically, an embryo could be ‘edited’ using the powerful tool Crispr-Cas9 to defend humans against HIV infection
Dr Smith said the sooner that scientists are permitted to start creating GM people, the sooner a wide range of benefits will be attained.
But an ethical approach must be central to the process to win public trust.
HOW DOES CRISPR DNA EDITING WORK?
The CRISPR gene editing technique is being used an increasing amount in health research because it can change the building blocks of the body.
At a basic level, CRISPR works as a DNA cutting-and-pasting operation.
Technically called CRISPR-Cas9, the process involves sending new strands of DNA and enzymes into organisms to edit their genes.
In humans, genes act as blueprints for many processes and characteristics in the body – they dictate everything from the colour of your eyes and hair to whether or not you have cancer.
The components of CRISPR-Cas9 – the DNA sequence and the enzymes needed to implant it – are often sent into the body on the back of a harmless virus so scientists can control where they go.
Cas9 enzymes can then cut strands of DNA, effectively turning off a gene, or remove sections of DNA to be replaced with the CRISPRs, which are new sections sent in to change the gene and have an effect they have been pre-programmed to produce.
But the process is controversial because it could be used to change babies in the womb – initially to treat diseases – but could lead to a rise in ‘designer babies’ as doctors offer ways to change embryos’ DNA.
Source: Broad Institute
He acknowledges that the public has a ‘yuck factor’ about designer babies, as well as health concerns and fears relating to the use of the technology for eugenics.
But he said putting the brakes on GM embryos would stop a promising avenue in medicine that could greatly reduce disease.
GM babies could created in the UK and around the world with an ‘acceptable level of risk’, although he concedes it will only be known for certain how risky GM editing an embryo will be when it has happened, he said.
Last year, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankiu, revealed he had successfully edited the genes of two baby girls when they were at the embryo stage to make them resistant to the HIV virus.
The revelation triggered widespread condemnation, with critics arguing the genetic code could lead to unforeseen health consequences for the children as they grow up.
Dr Smith said: ‘Society is largely opposed to genetically modifying humans, and the negative publicity generated by the ethically problematic first-ever production of GM babies in China last year was strongly criticised by most geneticists and ethicists, further hardening attitudes against the creation of so-called ‘designer babies’.
‘However, by delaying an ethically-sound move towards a world where we can reduce genetic disease, we are failing those who suffer through disease and debilitating conditions.
‘If such negative attitudes to biomedical innovation had prevailed in the 1970s, the development and use of IVF – a massively beneficial medical technology – would have been severely delayed, and indeed might never have come to fruition.’
But David King, a member of campaign group Stop Designer Babies, said: ‘Given the determination of a small group of scientists to press ahead with human genetic engineering, regardless of consequences, it is vital that ordinary people stand up and say no to a future of eugenics and turning children into just another consumer item.’