Approaching the stuff of science fiction novels, a January 20 article in UK’s Mail Online by Tamara Cohen reported that a new in vitro Fertilization (IVF) technique could produce embryos within the next two years that are made up of genetic material from three parents.
Graphic from Dawn of the Designer Babies with Three Parents and No Hereditary Diseases by Fiona Macrae, Mail Online, 15 April, 2010.
The article emphasizes that this new approach is meant to help couples conceive without the risk of incurable diseases like muscular dystrophy, but laws in some countries prohibit the use of this technique for ethical reasons.
As a scientist, I find ground-breaking research that can eliminate genetic disease worthy of Nobel consideration. This article reminds me of how we felt when cloning and stem cell research first entered the public consciousness. At first rare and practiced only in controlled settings, these techniques are no longer so mysterious and mystical, but instead something that a good doctor or scientist can learn and do after a few weeks of training. The article rightly focuses on long-term ethical regulation of the technique.
Exactly where is the line and are we even getting close to it? I surely don’t know. We used to call them test-tube babies. We used to think of sex selection as something only done in sci-fi novels, and yet now every fertility specialist in the U.S. has access to these techniques. Right or wrong depends a lot on your point of view. Is it such a leap to think that 30 years from now, we’ll be making TV-ready intellectual super-babies, free of predispositions to diseases and possessing the optimal genetics of Olympic athletes?
Luckily I found this article by Genetic Counselor Allie Janson Hazell from last week, The Myth of the Designer Baby, that made me feel a little better. She, like me, hopes that we’ll never learn to manipulate genes at that level and that even if we do, we won’t actually use the technology in that way.
Of course, knowing how and actually taking the steps are two very different things, but without regulation and the potential for this to become a money-making venture, we can’t be sure some trippy version of this fantasy won’t happen someday.
I’m sure someone out there, as I write this, is working on this as the plot of their new novel. Hmmm, maybe I should be! But how will their novel end?
Let’s hope it ends with the world getting population growth under control, and all the money saved on treatment and management of genetic disease is rerouted toward environmental preservation and restoration. Why not? A girl can dream, right?