Imagine wanting to have a child but being told that if you do, your baby almost certainly will be born with a fatal or seriously debilitating genetic disease. And then hearing that scientists have discovered a way to prevent that condition so your child can live a long and healthy life.
Most prospective parents would probably jump at the opportunity. And one day soon that may be the case.
But first the ethics involved in the science behind this intriguing development in molecular biology will have to be debated and worked out by researchers, governments and the health care industry.
The ethical dilemma arises because the same technique that would give parents the chance to prevent genetic disease in their offspring also would give people the ability to produce “designer babies” by altering genes to create children with traits their parents desire.
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That technology is advancing more rapidly than society’s ability to grapple with the potential consequences. Major breakthroughs by researchers at the University of California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in recent years have made the process of editing genes far easier than it was just a few years ago. Some experts believe these developments will be the most important scientific discoveries of the 21st century.
Scientists have been using their new tools to develop therapies that would edit the genes of fetuses or even adults to prevent or reverse disease. The effect of those procedures, if they work, would be limited to the individual who receives the treatment and would not be passed on to their offspring.
But now a Chinese-led research team has taken things a step further. The Chinese group tinkered with the “germ lines” of early embryos – editing the DNA that controls the very building blocks of life. The changes they made in the lab, if eventually done in an embryo that survived to become a person, would be knitted into that person’s cells at a level that could be passed on to his or her children.
That step – editing the germ line – is fraught with momentous implications. One is the possibility that private individuals or governments would use it not just to produce babies to their liking but to try to create some sort of “super race” bred with special qualities.
Another potential problem is that the procedure, at least for now, is imperfect. Scientists targeting one gene might risk altering others in ways that they did not intend or, worse, are not even aware of. Those changes would become part of the gene pool and could be passed on to future generations.
The National Institutes of Health has refused to fund research that seeks to alter the germ line, and most major research institutes in the U.S. seem to be following suit. But that won’t stop foreign research from proceeding, and some prominent scientists in the U.S. believe the health benefits of this line of inquiry will eventually be seen to outweigh the risks.
Previous breakthroughs in biotechnology have led to voluntary guidelines – such as those involving the combining of DNA of different organisms – and bans like the one still in effect on the cloning of humans.
Another such meeting of the minds on the ethics of editing the germ line might be in order before researchers get much further out ahead of the public’s understanding and desires in this field.