Designer Babies: Fact or Myth?
A doctor in China has announced that he has produced the world's first designer babies, largely to cries of outrage, and some scepticism, from around the world. Most countries have rightly banned such human gene editing because it is a step into the unknown and we do not want to risk, for example, introducing a gene to avoid HIV whilst accidentally introducing one which will result in cancer a few years after birth.
So how dangerous is gene editing and will we ever produce designer babies?
Well firstly, a kind of gene editing occurs in nature more often than you might imagine. We have all heard of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the mechanism for this is thought to be the transfer of a resistant gene from a different species. In fact, some estimates are that 5% to 6% of all DNA is from different species, introduced through vectors such as viruses and phages. It is more common in simpler organisms but humans were simpler once and scientists think they have identified 100-150 genes in humans that come from non-human sources.
So why, you might ask, shouldn't we allow scientists to gene-edit to eliminate such things as HIV or cancer genes, and why is this of particular interest to your local fertility clinic here in Wandsworth Park?
The answer to the second question is that gene editing, as in the Chinese example, will most likely occur in fertility centres whilst the embryo is in its earliest stages. Then edits will be replicated in every other cell as the single-cell embryo divides and grows into a baby with its trillions of cells. And the reason we shouldn't allow it…because we already know that most genes affect multiple aspects of our bodies, and that most of our characteristics are caused by a multitude of different genes. Therefore we should not tinker with nature until we know exactly what the repercussions will be.
Of course, that does not mean that science is not making any progress. When our IVF patients have embryos, they grow in our lab for usually 5 days before we transfer them back to their mother and in these 5 days nature itself selects the embryos with the correct gene mix from their parents. To-date more than 10,000 illnesses have been traced back worldwide to single gene inheritable mutations, which can be checked to be absent in new embryos in IVF labs. However, this is just a drop in the ocean and there is a long, long way to go before society can even consider introducing gene editing in fertility clinics.
If you have difficulty starting your family, call the clinic on 020-8870-2107 to book a consultation.
Concept Fertility Clinic
14 Point Pleasant, SW18 1GG
September 6, 2019