For anyone who watches the breakfast news or flicks through the papers on the way to work it was impossible to miss the latest case of media scaremongering this week.
“Dawn of the designer baby” cried the Daily Mail.
“One giant step for designer babies” exclaimed i.
Dr Hilary tried desperately in his ITV interview to calm down the excited presenters, assuring them that designer babies were not coming any time soon.
So what caused all the excitement? As with seemingly all headlines at the moment, CRISPR was the culprit. A team of scientists at Oregon Health and Science University has used the gene editing technique to correct a mutation in a gene called MYBPC3. They did this in a human embryo at the preimplantation stage. MYBPC3 is an important gene because a faulty version is linked to the heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It is the same condition that caused the collapse of footballer Fabrice Muamba in 2012.
As with any researching using human embryos, this work was always going to cause a stir. The phrase “playing God” is often thrown about, usually as a catch all term regardless of what the research entails. There will always be people, as is their right, who feel that certain things are sacred and human life (or in this case, the embryo) is one such example.
On the other side of the fence sit those who agree with that viewpoint but take a different stance; human life is important so that if something can reduce the number of ‘preventable’ deaths then it should be done. All such research is stringently controlled by ethics committees so in theory it has all been approved anyway.
You also can’t ignore the natural instinct of a scientist to learn as much as possible about their chosen specialism, to dig as deep as they can go and then a little deeper. This is what makes any monumental discovery possible, the drive to find out something that no one yet knows.
Are we any closer to designer babies? This paper doesn’t push us into that realm, at least not in the way that the tabloids would have you believe. To ‘design’ your baby with blonde hair and blue eyes (a great combination, if I do say so) requires so many genes to be altered that it would not be possible right now. The scientists here have only edited the one gene. It also important to remember that just because something could be done, doesn’t mean it ever will.
Personally, I’m curious to see where CRISPR will take us next. I’m not worried about so-called designer babies (even if it were possible I wouldn’t do it) but I do find it impossible not to be pulled in by the thought that preventable hereditary conditions could be reduced.
What are your thoughts? Drop a comment or get in touch via Twitter or Instagram.
Rebecca | An Anxious Scientist