New fears of ‘designer babies’ arise with embryonic gene-editing experiments suggested by UK scientists Kathy Niakan. The stem cell expert is asking the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to allow her to carry out gene-editing experiments on human embryos.
According to the medical definition, ‘designer babies’ represent those children that are born due to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Unlike regular IVF children, ‘designer babies’ have their genes pre-determined through DNA sequence alteration. Such medical practices, had they been permitted, would enable parents to check their human eggs for hereditary diseases and cosmetic defects.
Gene-editing on human embryos has not yet been allowed precisely because the respective experiments would allow parents to ‘design’ their babies, according to their preferences. Except for the case of hereditary diseases, which are totally comprehensible, couples may also opt to ‘program’ their children to have a certain height and weight, skin type and to be athletes or geniuses.
These options are causing long debates among the scientific community, which argues that individuals should not be given the opportunity to determine a person’s life. Discussions have become all the more passionate since UK scientist Kathy Niakan has submitted an application asking the HFEA to allow her to conduct gene-editing experiments on human embryos.
The stem cell expert thinks many improvements can be made on in vitro fertilization (IVF) if researchers could better understand embryonic evolution. She is particularly interested in the modifications that could be made on the CRISPR-Cas9 system. In addition, Niakan hopes her experiment will help cure miscarriages and embryonic diseases after IVF.
In spite of the promising objectives that the scientist has set for her future research, HFEA thinks the application has to be carefully considered in order to prevent bad practices. According to them, the request should be approved because it is related to scientific researches and not to infertility treatments, but further investigations will be conducted.
Opinions are divided among the scientific community. There are those researchers, who support Niakan’s initiative saying that DNA sequence alteration in human embryos could bring many benefits to humanity. They enlisted a series of embryonic and pediatric diseases which could be prevented with the help of gene-editing.
In response to opponents’ point of view, they argue that certain altering processes are already possible through IVF. Parents can chose their children’s gender and determine some of their genes through Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). In spite of the scientific options they have, neither doctors, nor parents have abused PGD, proving that gene-editing can be correctly used, too.
HFEA is considering all pro and against arguments. They will, nevertheless, use British laws to determine whether DNA experiments on human embryos should be allowed or not.
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