Hacking the DNA of babies? Only in the world of science fiction or on the big screen have we seen such horrifying scenarios. But what about a future world of designer babies created from hacked or gene-edited embryos? Might they someday become the norm?
Recent news of the world’s first designer babies was met with shock and global outrage when gene-edited twin baby girls, Lulu and Nana, were born in Shenzhen, China. Lulu had a piece of DNA snipped out of her embryo that should make her totally immune to HIV. The other twin, Nana, was partially gene-edited and should have some resistance to HIV, but is not totally immune. Although gene-editing research on human embryos is ongoing, implanting the embryos and letting mothers give birth to genetically engineered designer babies is condemned by mainstream scientists.
Dr He Jiankui, not a medical doctor but a bioengineer, studied in the United States at Rice and Stanford Universities before being lured back home to Shenzhen. Many in the world of gene-editing think Dr He overstepped the boundary. His rogue experiment on embryos has been criticized as an attack on human DNA and the future of humanity. For the edited twins, no one can fully anticipate any health problems, serious errors or unknown side effects these edited girls will be inflicted with as they grow up. If they have children later in life, they will pass their newly designed DNA down to future generations.
Tinkering with DNA in microbial beasts to monkeys is nothing new, although ethically questionable. Gene-editing trials using the same tool, CRISPR-Cas9, are also underway for patients with existing genetic disorders. But allowing gene-edited embryos to develop beyond a few cells has been considered off-limits. Dr He’s work has been criticized by many as medically unnecessary, misguided and just plain stupid.
Dr He removed a gene, CCR5, from those twin baby girls that is needed for immunity against West Nile and Flu viruses. So, if later in life they are exposed to a nasty flu virus, their immunity will be compromised. They could easily die. Messing with genes that dampen or in other ways destroy our immunity is considered absolutely reprehensible.
Some equate what Dr He has done to bioterrorism. Former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper included gene editing in a list of weapons of mass destruction. Yep, a WMD. So do I.
I write bioterror novels. In my thriller, Underlying Crimes: Tiger Tiger, a highly contagious and lethal “Tiger Flu” is created by gene-editing. In the real world, a bioterrorist attack by rogue scientists using a lab-created super-flu is possible. According to national biosecurity experts, this is something we need to be concerned about.
Dr He is no different than any rogue bioterrorist. The babies that Dr He created are highly vulnerable to common strains of flu, even the mildest for that matter. So “He” had better stop playing god!
So, what’s the big deal about designer babies? Couldn’t we use gene-editing to create a future generation of perfected people who are free of inherited diseases and immune to all those nasty microbes out there? And while we are at it, let’s add some DNA — designed genes that could increase our life-span. Could we live forever? What could possibly be wrong with making us the healthiest human race that ever existed? Shouldn’t we also add genes that make us stronger? What about brain smarts? Could we make some edits that improve our intelligence? And how about some genes that make us more athletic? Which of these traits would pass the ethical test for improving humanity?
So, why not hack the DNA of babies? How about hair color or eye color? Could we get creative with rainbow colored people? Or would we eventually end up affecting the future of what it is to be human? Be careful what you wish for. Editing the genes of humans is not easy. The complexity of human DNA, the multitude of genes controlling even one trait, and the way genes interact with each other defy the expectations for what is possible.
And there’s the problem of getting caught up with the law of unintended consequences. Cause we don’t know what we don’t know until it happens. And if things can go wrong, they will.
To use a few clichés, the genie is out of the bottle. Like the advent of nuclear bombs, is gene-editing of human embryos something we will come to regret? Have we opened Pandora’s box? Will unanticipated evils fly out or will gene-edited humans become our nemesis? Would, someday in the future, those of us who are born “natural” be an inferior species?
According to the late great physicist and author Professor Stephen Hawking, “The wealthiest individuals in our society could fuel the creation of superhumans.” And that “this could have deadly implications for ‘unimproved’ humans.” Hawking concluded, “Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant.”
Joann Mead is the author of bioterror novel Underlying Crimes: Tiger Tiger. Her next bioterror novel, which will be released in 2019, is about gene-edited designer babies.