Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Designer Babies?

From the AP. Link here.

By MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer Mon May 12, 6:25 PM ET

NEW YORK - News that scientists have for the first time genetically altered a human embryo is drawing fire from some watchdog groups that say it's a step toward creating "designer babies."

But an author of the study says the work was focused on stem cells. He notes that the researchers used an abnormal embryo that could never have developed into a baby anyway.

"None of us wants to make designer babies," said Dr. Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

The idea of designer babies is that someday, scientists may insert particular genes into embryos to produce babies with desired traits like intelligence or athletic ability. Some people find that notion repugnant, saying it turns children into designed objects, and would create an unequal society where some people are genetically enriched while others would be considered inferior.

The study appears to be the first report of genetically modifying a human embryo. It was presented last fall at a meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, but didn't draw widespread public attention then. The result was reported over the weekend by The Sunday Times of London, which said British authorities highlighted the work in a recent report.

Rosenwaks and colleagues did the work with an embryo that had extra chromosomes, making it nonviable. Following a standard procedure used in animals, they inserted a gene that acts as a marker that can be easily followed over time. The embryo cells took up the gene, he said.

The goal was to see if a gene introduced into an abnormal embryo could be traced in stem cells that are harvested from the embryo, he said. Such work could help shed light on why abnormal embryos fail to develop, he said.

No stem cells were recovered from the human embryo, said Rosenwaks, noting that abnormal embryos frequently don't develop well enough to produce them.

Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, said the Cornell scientists were developing techniques that others might use to make genetically modified people, "and they're doing it without any kind of public debate."

A London-based group called Human Genetics Alert similarly criticized the work.

But Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said she's not troubled by the work. She said the idea of successfully modifying babies by inserting genes remains a technically daunting challenge.

"We're not even close to having that technology in hand to be able to do it right," she said, and it would be ethically unacceptable to try it when it's unsafe.

A few questions:

1. Does it matter that they used an "abnormal embryo?"

2. While it would certainly be unethical for this group of scientists to use this technology for human modification, aren't others able to do so?

3. If so, should the progress be halted based on the possible malfeasance/malevolence of others?

4. Although the idea of successfully modifying babies is a technically daunting challenge at this time, doesn't that seem to be a planned goal?

5. Is that bad?

6. Couldn't we have a better name than "Designer Babies." Sounds like an LA girls pop band.


Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Hi, Doc. Thought I'd check out your website after your very nice, well thought-out comment over at ERs.

I like the questions you pose to the information in the article. "Designer Babies" is actually a really good name for an all-girl pop band, filled with pregnant women, BTW.

On a personal note, before we moved to the Midwest, my wife was pastor for five years in Jarratt, VA, did her CPE training at MCV, and our older daughter was born at Henrico Doctor's Hospital. I have many fond memories of Richmond, including taking my daughter to Brown's Island one summer afternoon, walks through the Fan, the old Texas Wisconsin Border Cafe - you name it.

Doc said...

Welcome! Thanks for the nice post. I have enjoyed the area since 1988. Great for families.

The blog is still in it's embryonic stage; I appreciate the support.

BTW, I believe I have a message to send you; but I'll have to get over to your blog.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

OK, Doc, now that we've cleared up our mutual affinities, shall we say, one specific comment concerning this article comes to mind - this seems a long way from ordering babies from the catalog of a genetics corporation. The basic complaint, it seems to me, is one of socio-economic class. That is to say, poorer people are not going to be able to afford the technology whereby their children can be genetically altered and improved, creating not just a class split, but a potential genetic differentiation between the two classes.

Doc said...

How H.G. Wells-ian of you. You bring up a good point that is quite relevant to all of medicine, the accessibility to technology. Genetic engineering, whether via recombinant DNA modified vectors for attacking specific diseases, or in stem cell treatments of neurological damage, is a reality. This study suggests that there will be considerable options in the future. While I believe myriad questions should continue as to the ethical usages here, a very viable question is: "Who's going to have access to this?"
In any health care system (socialized or capitalistic- for example) there will be limitations on access to treatments that are deemed "medically necessary" (e.g. antibiotics). Greater limitation s will be given on treatments that are deemed "voluntary" (e.g. cosmetic surgery). Embryo alteration is closer to the voluntary treatment. If we have a socialized health care system, only two groups will be given the access to this: Those with deep pockets, or those that the government decides will be allowed access. Our current health care system may not require such deep pockets for access, but still likely would split the socio-economic groups as you have suggested. A difference is that people could demand access from pressuring their insurance carriers, to make a greater range of accessibility.
As to the possible genetic split. Two points:
1. I think that this type of split continues genetically and socially as we speak.
2. It's hard to talk genetic population shifts without sounding German, circa 1934.
Ironic, that I am typing this from the mental health facility in Virginia that performed the majority of the over 8,000 forced sterilizations of the "feeble-minded." from the 1920's to 1970's.
On a tangent, there are no sexually active females in the state facilities for mentally retarded persons who are not strongly advised to have injected birth control. Decisions for treatment are made by legally authorized representatives.

Ian said...

This is great!