The Designer Baby Era Is Not Upon Us


Publish Date:
August 7, 2017
  • Yong, Ed
The Atlantic
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One week ago, MIT Technology Review reported that scientists at an Oregon-based lab had modified the DNA of human embryos using the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR. That was a first for the United States; until then, such a procedure had only ever been done in China.

The researchers, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov from Oregon Health and Science University, had altered the gene behind an unspecified inherited disease in a number of one-cell embryos. These embryos weren’t allowed to develop for more than a few days, and there was never any intention to implant them into a womb. The story fueled another cycle of discussion about designer babies, and fears that a Gattaca-style world was just around the corner.

When can we expect such editing to be commonplace?

Not for a while. The technique would need to be refined, tested on non-human primates, and shown to be safe. “The safety studies would likely take 10 to 15 years before FDA or other regulators would even consider allowing clinical trials,” wrote bioethicist Hank Greely in a piece for Scientific American. “The Mitalipov research could mean that moment is 9 years and 10 months away instead of 10 years, but it is not close.” In the meantime, Kaul says, “We’ll get the method to perfection so that when it’s possible to use it in a clinical trial, we can.”

Does this discovery have any social importance at all?

“It’s not so much about designer babies as it is about geographical location,” says Charo. “It’s happening in the United States, and everything here around embryo research has high sensitivity.” She and others worry that the early report about the study, before the actual details were available for scrutiny, could lead to unnecessary panic. “Panic reactions often lead to panic-driven policy … which is usually bad policy,” wrote Greely.

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