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Designer Children: The Future of Germline Gene Therapy 
 
by Mark R. Whittington October 13, 2005

With advances in biotechnology, it seems inevitable that sometime parents will be able to select their children's traits as if they were choosing options on a new car. This could elmination many diseases, such as down syndrome or hemophilia. It could also mean parents could determine more frivolous traits, such as hair and eye color. This raises many ethical questions.

When a couple decides to have a child, they  roll the dice as to what physical and personal traits that child will have. They have only their genes to draw upon for what is in essence a random process of creating a child. There is no way to know how tall the child will be, his or her hair color, his or her eye color, his or her susceptibility to certain diseases, his or her intelligence, his or her athletic ability, and so on.

In the future, a few decades at most, this random aspect of child begetting may become a thing of the past. Thanks to the new science of biotechnology, people may  be able to choose physical and personal traits of a child much like people choose options on a new car. These traits would not only be the somewhat frivolous like whether the child will be blond or brunette, tall or short, but whether he or she is likely to be born with Down's syndrome, or get some kind of cancer later in life. The implications are profound.

The Human Genome Project

The Human Genome Project was a 13 year long effort, which was concluded in the year 2003, to discover all the estimated 20,000-25,000 human genes and make them accessible for further biological study. The project was sponsored by the DOE Human Genome Program and the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), with input from researchers from around the world.

Much more research is necessary. The new challenge will be to use this vast reservoir of data to explore how DNA and proteins work with each other and the environment to create complex, dynamic living systems. While researchers know the positions of some genes that control our medical traits, they don't know the exact gene sequence. Other genes have been located but their functions are unknown, and still others remain entirely elusive. The point of genome research is to locate the genes and to learn what they actually do.

Genetic Prescreening

In 1978, the first in vitro fertilization procedure or IVF was conducted, which allows for otherwise infertile parents to have children. The technique involved removing a woman’s egg from her uterus, fertilizing it in a lab, and then implanting the fertilized egg back into the uterus. IVF has resulted in the ability to “prescreen” a fertilized embryo for genetic disorders that can lead to conditions like down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and hemophilia. Eggs that contain these traits can be discarded in favor of those that do not. Some parents have already used this technique to determine the desired sex of their child. This is a rudimentary step along the road to the ability to alter the genetic code of an embryo to determine the physical and personal traits of a child.

Genetic Manipulation in Plants and Animals

The genes of animals and plants have been manipulated for a number of years in order to produce desirable traits. Food plants that are resistant to certain diseases and pests as well as creating higher yields have been created. Goats and cows that produce more milk, with greater amounts of protein have been created. Mice have been produced with a predetermined disease, such as cancer, to facilitate medical research.

Germline Gene Therapy

Germline gene therapy involves altering the genetic makeup of an embryo, or even a human sperm or egg, by inserting or deleting certain genes in order to determine physical and personal traits. These changes would not only alter the genetic code of the child that will be born from the embryo but, since his or her reproductive cells will also be altered, every descendent the child will have.

Making Designer Children

There has yet been no known attempt to conduct germline gene therapy on a human embryo. Medical science has not yet advanced far enough to do such a procedure safely. However, it is inevitable that science will progress far enough that parents will be able to actually determine the genetic makeup of their children. They will be able to do this for either therapeutic (i.e. to weed out certain genetic disorders) or for what are called cosmetic reasons (i.e. hair color, eye color, intelligence, and so on.)

Germline gene therapy for therapeutic reasons would not only weed out genetic traits for such inherited diseases such as down syndrome or hemophilia, but even the predisposition to catch diseases such as cancer and Alzheimers later in life. The implications of a widespread use of such therapy would mean that many diseases that afflict human beings would become far rarer or even nonexistent.

Some parents will be tempted to design their children with other traits. If potential parents want blond haired, blue eyed children, they would be able to get them. They could order other traits such as intelligence, athletic ability, musical talent, physical beauty, and so on. Of course, many of these traits are determined just as much by environment and nurturing as they are by ones genetic makeup. What use, for example, is musical talent if it is never nurtured by training and exposure to great music?

Ethical Considerations

The prospect of being able to create designer children has raised a number of ethical questions. Some people find the idea abhorrent because of the prospect of “playing God” with the genetic makeup of human beings. Of course similar objections had been raised for just about every other medical advance, including vaccinations and organ transplants.

And a more practical level, other people object to the idea of designer children for safety reasons. Could the manipulation of the genetic makeup of humans lead to unexpected results, no matter how keen our understanding of genetics? It would be a tragic thing if a child were designed for superior mathematical ability if it also resulted in some bad side effect, such as a predisposition for some mental disorder such as bipolar syndrome.

Other people wonder if human beings could be trusted to make wise choices, once the ability to create designer children has arrived. For instance, in some societies like China, where male children are preferred to female children, won’t the ability to have designer children create an imbalance in the sexes? What if people were able to determine the sexual preference of their children (i.e. whether they were gay or straight)? Should they?

If germline gene therapy is permitted, who will regulate it? By what criteria? Will therapeutic therapy be permitted but not cosmetic? If so, why? Will the rich have the ability to design their children, but not the poor? These and other questions must and should be debating in the years to come, so that society will be ready when the technology is developed.


 

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