DNA Day experts answer your questions about 'Designer Babies'

Above: Image © ly_mila, iStockphoto.com

When DNA technology booms and "Designer Babies" becomes a reality, what safeguards should be put in place in order to prevent the attempt of creating a "master race?"

It's not at all clear, even to groups of the best trained professionals in genomics and ethics, how we should move forward with modifications of the human germline. There is a great discussion of this in a recent issue in Science magazine. (see A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification -http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6230/36.summary ) We all agree that safeguards should be put in place, but it's totally unclear how to do that.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sean Myles

Are we any closer to creating " designer babies" ?

I think we can select for specific traits ( through genetic testing) . SO by corollary if we knew the gene for something that we wanted in our child we could in theory screen for that. But then ethics comes into play.

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

Do you believe that technology will go so far that it will be possible to genetically design babies?

The technology, called gene therapy, does exist, it is still being perfected. The idea is to be able to correct specific mutations that have serious effects on the survival and well being of individuals. This technique, in the wrong hands, could be used eventually to genetically design babies. The important question is should this be allowed. Having a technology to do something, and having permission to do it are 2 very different things.

- Answer provided by Dr. Richard Sparling

How far away from reality is the possibility of choosing the sex of your baby ?

I don't know, but suspect it might be possible now, although perhaps not readily accessible. I was just happy to let nature take its course... sometimes its good to give up control and let nature run its course!

- Answer provided by Dr. Robert Hanner

Thoughts on "designer babies"?

Eventually technically possible, but seems like a huge ethical minefield. Setting aesthetic considerations aside as an extreme case, more practically where do you draw the line between avoiding devastating lifelong disease and abrogating likely chronic medical inconvenience? The former will likely become practice, but society as a whole will need to have an informed debate to define limiting principles that will be applied.

- Answer provided by Dr. Paul Gordon

What is a designer baby, and how are they "made" ?

There might be a couple of ways of doing this: a designer baby could be created by screening a set of embryos (obviously outside the body), identifying a variety of genes, then selecting those eggs that have no unwanted genes. This would be like screening for something like Down's syndrome (if one was worried about that).... A step further would be to try to enhance the qualities of an embryo by some sort of "gene therapy" (even though you couldn't really call it therapy). In other words, equip that embryo with all sorts of "good" genes. Question is, what are "good" genes?

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

What is a designer baby? how are they created?

I never heard of designer baby. Are we talking SciFi again like Gataca? If it means selecting your invitro embryo based on its genetic, then that would be unethical in all first world nations.

- Answer provided by Dr. Sylvie Cloutier

Is it possible to choose the color of our children's eyes through genetics?

We do know the genes for eye colour, but unfortunately we do not have selective breeding in humans for this. That would be eugenics.

- Answer provided by Dr. Dennis McCormac

Is there the potential to intentionally code DNA for In Vitro fertilization to ensure that the child has no deficiencies or diseases?

Yes, there is certainly the potential. A very scary potential, as what is the definition of 'deficiencies' and will it stop there. This is 'designer human' technology, which is generally banned for good reason. What makes a species survive and evolve is genetic diversity. We start homogenizing that diversity at the peril of the species.

- Answer provided by Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

Is is possible to alter an unborn child's genes to attempt to prevent any mutations (ie. downsyndrome) while they are still in the womb?

Thanks for the question! On the face of it, your question is asking if there is gene therapy for embryos. Alas, gene therapy (going in and tweaking the genome) is still rather unreliable, and definitely not feasible at the scale of something like Down's Syndrome where a whole extra chromosome is present in the cells. The closest thing I can think of to a Yes answer to your original question is something called "three parent" in-vitro (lab assisted) fertilization. In the case where the mother-to-be has a rare condition called mitochondrial disease, it is now possible to avoid passing on the disease by using a healthy woman's egg that has been turned into a "blank" (devoid of a nuclear genome). This blank egg can then be loaded with the mother's genome, minus the ~0.0005% of defective DNA from the mother's mitochondria... More generally, because gene therapy in the womb is impractical, genetic screening of embryos in the lab is the most common way to mitigate mutation problems. Some parents-to-be use in vitro fertilization, because otherwise their specific genetic make-ups are likely to produce a child with a devastating disease. Several eggs are fertilized in the lab, then they can be screened. Only one (or a few) without the expected specific genetic defects are chosen for implantation in the mother.

- Answer provided by Dr. Paul Gordon

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