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‘Most infants will be designer babies in 20 years’

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*Mothers will choose embryos based on sex, intelligence, disease risk even musical ability
*African scientists call for more control of their continent’s genomic data, issue guidelines

Most infants will be ‘designer babies’ in as little as 20 years, a professor claims.Within 20-to-40 years, hopeful mothers will be able to choose the embryos implanted into their wombs based on their preferences for sex, intelligence, musical ability or disease risk, according to Professor Henry Greely from Standard University, who works in bioethics.

Professor Greely, who wrote “The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction”, said: “The majority of babies of people who have good health coverage will be conceived this way.”A designer baby is an embryo that is genetically engineered for specifically selected traits before being implanted into a woman via In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).Although initially a sci-fi concept, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis already routinely determines if embryos are at risk of diseases such as cystic fibrosis in the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US). Designer babies are illegal in the UK.

While The Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs supports genetic selection if it benefits a child’s wellbeing, critics argue choosing ‘preferred’ traits that do not boost health is unethical.Supporters of the practice argue parents can already influence their child’s tastes via lifestyle choices, such as taking them to concerts, and should therefore have the right to “prenatal autonomy”.

What are designer babies? And what are the pros and cons? A designer baby occurs when hopeful parents chose desirable qualities for embryos via genetic screening.The embryos are then implanted into women’s uteruses via IVF.Traits that may be selected could include choosing a daughter, a child without a risk of sickle cell disease or a son who is musically gifted.

Supporters argue genetically altering embryos could increase individuals’ life expectancies by only keeping their healthy genes.Deoxy ribonucleic Acid (DNA) that increases the risk of certain conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, could be discarded.Some believe selecting for traits such as intelligence may also improve people’s quality of life.Supporters also claim parents already have an influence on their children’s personalities, such as taking them to music concerts.

They add parents should also have “prenatal autonomy”.But critics argue it is unethical for children to be genetically engineered to have certain traits, such as blue eyes, that do not benefit their health.Such genetic screening is also still in its early stages and therefore may not be completely safe.Parents may also not get the outcomes they were hoping for due to chemical modifications affecting genes after embryos are implanted in the uterus.

Critics also argue people’s upbringings and life experiences have a substantial impact on traits such as intelligence.In addition, genes that control intelligence may also influence ‘negative’ traits, like anger.Some also point out only wealthy people could likely afford such genetic screenings.Health insurers may also reject patients who did not undergo genetic selection out of concerns they have a higher disease risk.

Meanwhile, as the genomics revolution finally turns its attention to Africa and northern researchers flock there to collect data, scientists from the continent are demanding a larger role in projects.On 18 April, a group of Africa-based researchers issued guidelines for the ethical handling of samples for genomic studies. The voluntary rules are an effort to combat ‘helicopter’ research, in which foreign scientists take samples and data from communities and then return to their home institutions. The guidelines also aim to ensure that African citizens see health benefits from research.

In recent years, researchers have begun sequencing the genomes of Africans in large numbers. The data offer insights into humanity’s past as well as predisposition to disease and potential reactions to drugs in African populations — the world’s most genetically diverse.But because few institutions on the continent have the equipment to handle large genomic data sets, African scientists wanting to work on such projects have often had to accept terms offered by foreign partners, says Jantina de Vries, a bioethicist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and co-author of the guidelines. “African research has been held over a barrel.”

The rules were issued by the ethics working group of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative, a health-genomics consortium that supports research in African institutions. It is funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust.

H3Africa is spending US$188 million over 10 years to fund Africa-led genomics projects, train bioinformaticians and create biobanks. South Africa has also invested in genomics facilities.The document calls for “meaningful and substantive” African intellectual contributions to research that draws on African samples. It says that researchers might be able to take specimens out of the continent in some cases, but projects should involve African scientists and build their capacity to work independently. Research should also respect African values and should benefit citizens, says de Vries’s team.

Meanwhile, most wish to leave children’s fate “in God’s hands”. Despite Professor Greely’s predictions, Dr. Louanne Hudgins, who studies prenatal genetic screening at Stanford, expects only a ‘very small minority’ of parents will want designer babies, with most preferring to leave their fate “in God’s hands”.Dr. James Grifo, from the New York University Fertility Center, who has been performing IVF since 1988, added: “No patient has ever came to me and said, ‘I want a designer baby’.”

Professor Greely doubts many parents will wish to influence their child’s intelligence or athleticism, but insists they may want to avoid childhood diseases.He adds parents will likely have less interest in conditions that typically appear in later life, such as Alzheimer’s.Designer-baby critics argue only wealthy people could likely afford such screening.

In the future, health insurers may also reject patients who have not undergone genetic selection out of concerns they have a higher disease risk.Dr. Louanne Hudgins, who studies prenatal genetic screening and diagnosis at Stanford, adds genetically screening foetuses for diseases is not supported by medical associations and therefore health insurers will unlikely pay for such treatment in the near future.

Parents may also not get the outcomes they were hoping for due to chemical modifications affecting genes after embryos are implanted in the uterus.Critics add people’s upbringings and life experiences also have a substantial impact on traits such as intelligence. Dr. Richard Scott Jr, a founding partner of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New Jersey, added: “Your child may not turn out to be the three-sport All-American at Stanford.”

Fertility technique could cause celebrities to unwittingly become parents. Designer babies aside, Professor Greely, is developing a technology that enables ordinary cells to be transformed into sperm or eggs.Although only done in mice to date, the technique may benefit infertile couples if eggs could be produced from, for example, a woman’s skin cells.

Professor Greely envisions the method could yield hundreds of eggs, which may be screened for genetic traits before couples choose one or two to implant.Dr. Amander Clark, from the University of California, LA, believes the technique may enable people who are infertile due to cancer treatments to become parents.Critics of Professor Greely’s vision argue obsessive celebrity fans may unwittingly turn stars into parents if they collect skin cells from, for instance, a discarded coffee cup.

Are designer babies legal in the UK and US? Designer babies are illegal in the UK. The US does not have specific rules preventing genetically engineering embryos, however, federal funds cannot be used for such research.In 2016, the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) allowed a certain team of scientists to genetically edit human embryos. The researchers, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, were able to ‘turn off’ genes that prevent IVF success and cause miscarriages.

They had to specifically apply to the HFEA for permission before going ahead with their research.They only analysed the embryos’ early development, with the cells not being allowed to grow into babies. No other researchers have been granted HFEA approval for such experiments.In 2015, the US National Institutes of Health said it “will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos”.

At the end of that year, a United Nations Education Scientific Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) panel of scientists, philosophers and lawyers called for a halt on genetic editing until its effects are better understood.In April 2015, Chinese scientists tweaked the genes of 28 embryos to try and prevent a life-threatening blood disorder.They encountered many challenges, concluding that such technology has a long way to go before it can be safely used in humans.

Meanwhile, De Vries hopes the framework will empower local scientists in negotiations with foreign partners. African scientists could avoid being scooped by overseas teams with superior computational facilities, for instance, if project terms include extended embargo periods during which scientists not involved in collecting the data are banned from publishing.

Time frames for analysis present a real challenge for African researchers who lack the computational facilities of the global north, says Michael Pepper, a coordinator of the Southern African Human Genome Programme, based at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, who provided input into the framework. “As soon as it falls into the hands of researchers in the Northern Hemisphere, we get left behind,” he says.

The framework will also be useful for African research-ethics committees that are charged with assessing proposals for studies. Many are unsure how to treat genomic research, de Vries says. For example, some countries — including Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi — ban or discourage collection of samples under ‘broad consent’, in which study participants agree that researchers can keep their samples and use them for purposes unspecified at the time of collection.


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