Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Tom Brady? Kylie or Taylor? Much like buying a car or a house, the ability to choose designer options for your children may soon become mainstream.
Born August 29, 2000, Adam Nash was born in the US. Adam is considered the first ‘designer baby.’ Born through in-vitro fertilization and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), genetic screening to ensure Adam would have the proper cells needed to save his sisters life. Adam’s sister Molly was born with Fanconi Anaemia, a genetic disorder that leads to failure of bone marrow production. Doctors screened the parent’s embryos and selected those which would produce the stem cells needed to save Molly’s life.
Sex Selection — When Humans try to Outwit Mother Nature
In the 1980s, ultrasound technology became readily available, allowing parents to be the opportunity to know early in the pregnancy the sex of the child. In many Asian countries, where there is a preference for male children, sex selection soon was exploited. This lead to widespread female feticide, which has created an artificial gender imbalance currently disrupting the reproductive age groups in a variety of countries, including China, South Korea, parts of India.
Natural sex-ratio at birth (SRB) for human populations consistently sits around 103–107 male babies for every 100 female ones. Due to sex-selective abortion, there is now an artificial gender imbalance predominantly in China and other Asian & European countries.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal estimates 23.1 million females are missing due to sex-selective abortions in 12 Asian and European countries.
Sex selection in China’s during the 1980s and ’90s, primarily due to the one-child policy, from 1979 to 2015, created such an imbalance that laws and regulations were enacted to outlaw the procedure, which has led to an underground network of illegal sex screening and abortions.
According to a report issued by China’s National Bureau of Statistics in 2016, there were nearly 34 million more men than women in the country. Now many men of marriageable age are unable to find a spouse, leading to a bride trafficking problem.
Gattaca, an 1990’s American science fiction film starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, explored a future populated by children conceived via genetic selection where prenatal and embryo screening is used to predict the genetic make-up of a fetus or embryo.
Today, Genomic Prediction, a New Jersey startup company, has developed a genome-wide molecular genotyping methodology for preimplantation genetic testing of embryos.
The genotyping methodology utilizes DNA measurements to predict which embryos from an IVF procedure are less likely to produce common single-gene disorders, such as Cystic Fibrosis, Thalassemia, BRCA, Sickle Cell Anemia, and Gaucher Disease in addition to a broad range of Polygenic disorders including Diabetes, Coronary Artery Disease, Heart Attack Risk, Intellectual Disability, Idiopathic Short Stature, etc.
Parents are given reports on tests run on frozen embryos that grade them based on risk estimates for the various listed diseases. Parents then can choose the healthiest ones.
Genome Editing and CRISPR-Cas9
CRISPR is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. CRISPR stands for clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. And Cas9 the protein, (“CRISPR-associated”), is an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors that can cut strands of DNA.
Jiankui He, a Chinese biophysics researcher, and scientist is known for the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies, twin Chinese girls Lulu and Nana, born in October 2018. Jiankui He used CRISPR/Cas9 to give the girls immunity from HIV infection, of which their father was positive. He claims to have been able to alter CCR5, a gene that allows the AIDS-causing virus to infect cells.
A new Netflix documentary series, Unnatural Selection, takes viewers into the world of gene editing. It follows the scientists, doctors, patients, and others, including ambitions and ethical struggles of redesigning mother nature. It asks the question, is biohacking ethical. It focuses on gene-editing technologies like CRISPR.
The idea of being able to select disease-free embryos has its benefits. But the technology would also be used for parents to choose socially desirable traits, and the impacts of those choices will remain unknown until a large number of these designer babies are born. Asia continues to grapple with the effects of humans going against Mother Nature for the sex selection of their children. What will be the side effects of full-blown baby designing? Will we be a world full of Kanyes & Kardashians? What would our world be like with children designed based on trends?
“If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.” — Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurrasic Park (Motion Picture). (1993). Steven Spielberg (Director). Kathleen Kennedy and Gerald R. Molen (Producers). Universal Studios
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