Designer babies, not yet, thank you

Technology News

When delusional fantasies proliferate (not even theories) of the conspiracy around biomedicine in general and the coronavirus in particular, the absence of a debate that is real and also difficult, about the possibilities that scientific advances open for intentionally changing human genetic heritage and producing designer babies. An international commission created specifically to face this challenge has just released a comprehensive report , with proposals for all countries that may consider regulating this issue for clinical application. This would be strictly limited to cases with medical justification , far from the specter of the eugenic movements of the last two centuries.

The main conclusion of the report is clear: Human embryos whose genomes have been modified in the laboratory for research should not be used to obtain a pregnancy and a possible birth because the techniques still do not allow to avoid that at the same time unwanted changes are introduced that also they would pass on from generation to generation. Experts who have studied the subject in depth recall that advanced, easy-to-use genetic manipulation techniques, called CRISPR, not only have scientific and medical aspects, but also raise ethical, moral and social considerations. “Before a country decides whether or not to allow the clinical use of heritable genetic modification, which includes alterations in the genetic material of eggs, sperm or cells from the early stages of embryo development, with the intention of achieving a pregnancy, a broad social dialogue would be necessary “, point out its authors. In general, this would be applicable to any assisted reproductive technique, which until now have focused mainly on the remedy of infertility in couples who wish to have children , not including genetic modification.

The International Commission on the Clinical Use of Hereditary Modification of the Human Genome was created following the announcement made by a Chinese scientist in 2018 that two twin girls had been born whose genome had previously been modified in the laboratory. This announcement caused a great scandal since it was already considered premature and irresponsible to change genetic inheritance with current knowledge and many countries explicitly prohibit it. The Chinese scientist was tried in his country and sentenced to three years in prison and a high fine. The controversy is reminiscent of the one that occurred in 1996 when the first cloned animal was obtained, the famous Dolly sheep , and the possibility of cloning human beings was opened, another red line so far not exceeded.

Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November 2018 | AFP
The Chinese scientist who modified the DNA of two babies defends himself: he did not have “the objective of eliminating genetic diseases”
The scientists do not deny that the use of these techniques to avoid some serious inherited diseases caused by a single gene can be justified , but they believe that the justification should be clear and when there is no other way . The Chinese scientist made a very weak argument, since he assured that he did it so that the children born were not susceptible to the AIDS virus, something not proven otherwise.

“Any initial use of this modification should proceed step by step and with caution,” in the words of the committee’s co-chair and Rockefeller University president Richard Lifton . Transfer of research to clinical practice is not considered possible for any other purpose. “More research is needed on the techniques of genetic modification in human embryos to ensure that precise changes can be made without additional unwanted effects,” says Kay Davies of the University of Oxford, the commission’s other vice chair. “International cooperation and transparency in all aspects of genetic modification will be essential.”

In the commission, which brings together 18 experts from Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, China, India and South Africa, no scientist from a Spanish institution participates. It is coordinated by three major institutions, the Academy of Medicine and the Academy of Sciences of the United States and the British Royal Society . The report will now be presented to the corresponding committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) that aims to develop guidelines for research and clinical uses of genome modification, both hereditary and non-hereditary.

Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong in November 2018 | AFP
Genetic modifications and the fear of eugenics
The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic while the report was being prepared is considered in it as further proof that we live in an interconnected world, where each country cannot act independently, and that science works in the context of society. . The use of genetic modification techniques transcends each nation and should be the subject of a global discussion, since it also affects issues related to equality , the authors point out.

One of the lines of research that would partly avoid the use of genetic modification in fertilization is the production of eggs and sperm from stem cells in the laboratory. However, this technique also poses its own problems to be solved before possible clinical use.

In general, the complete report, which reviews all possible diseases and techniques, strongly supports the creation of an advisory and surveillance structure to enforce the standards established in each country for techniques for hereditary modification of the human genome , as well as that of an international organization to make recommendations on any proposed new uses.

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