You can’t retract a designer baby: #CRISPR, social justice, & risks

CRISPR baby retraction

You couldn’t just retract a genetically modified designer baby should something go wrong. Retraction stamp part of image from Medscape

There’s a questionable notion floating around out there in the numerous discussions over heritable human genetic modification.

This idea goes that if germline human gene editing goes awry for any number of reasons, scientists could simply reverse it by applying genetics again.

The reversal notion does not fit with the reality of science as we know them today and could be harmful in giving false reassurance of the safety of genome modification.

To put it another way, you can’t retract a designer baby or its genetic modifications if they are later proven to be problematic.

If human modification were done in the germline (sperm and eggs or in a 1-cell embryo), then for better or worse every one, barring chimerism, of the trillions of cells of the resulting genetically modified (GM) baby would have that genetic modification. How would you effectively reverse an unexpectedly deleterious hard-wired change in all of those cells? The reality is that it would be impossible. Trying to do so would also raise the very real possibility of introducing yet more problems as well.

If the reversibility notion of human genetic modification is meant instead in a broader population sense such that within the larger human population that accidentally harmful genetic changes could be reversed or at least their transmission stopped, what would that entail? Forcing people who carry such unexpectedly “bad” genetic changes not to reproduce? We need to consider social justice issues.

Or is reversibility only implied in the context of gene drive-based genetic modification introduced into organisms in a natural ecosystem rather than humans? Even there I’m doubtful reversal attempts would work and others are also skeptical.

Overall, scientists and others should use greater caution in discussing the notion of reversibility of genetic modification. It would not be as simple as portrayed sometimes. Other notions such as genetic “off switches” for modifications in organisms (while elegant systems in the laboratory setting) could also prove in the real world to be impractical amongst heterogeneous cells in an organism within a population of organisms.

This doesn’t mean that people should stop working on or thinking about reversal strategies or conditional approaches to genetic modification. Quite the opposite as that work is important and should continue, but the notion that one could “simply” reverse an introduced genetic problem is misleading and downplays legitimate concerns over safety. It also potentially exaggerates human control of genetics in the real world.

As some of you readers know, I’ve written a new book on human genetic modification including on possible use of CRISPR in people. In the book I discuss the potential upsides and risks of CRISPR’ing people. The book is called GMO Sapiens. In it I discuss something called “reproductive quarantine” where humans with unexpectedly negative genetic outcomes from modification attempts are prevented by governments from reproducing.

While CRISPR’ing people would be an experiment, if something goes wrong with it then unlike a bad experimental outcome in a test tube or in a dish, or even a profoundly flawed paper that can be retracted, I don’t see how you undo the harm at the very least to individuals.

More broadly this raises the point that in these kinds of hypothetical human genetic experiments, the person becomes the experiment, necessitating a higher level of discussion that includes bioethical and social justice considerations.

GMO Sapiens: An excerpt from my new book on human #CRISPR

GMO Sapiens Book CoverMy new book GMO Sapiens just recently came out. You can see a few reviews of it here and you can order it here.

It’s an approachable, quick read on the unsettling, but exciting topic of using CRISPR gene editing technology to make a new kind of people.

Here’s an excerpt from the book (publisher: World Scientific Publishing Company), where I’m discussing the possibility that human genetic modification via CRISPR could become popular and an unstoppable trend:

The reality is that we just do not know how this trend could develop

or if it would be reversible. In only a few decades, for example, we went

from IVF baby #1 Louise Brown to over five million IVF babies. That is

a good thing and much joy has come out of that technological innovation,

but it also serves to highlight how quickly such changes can unfold. If in

coming years we witness the birth of GMO sapiens baby #1 made via

CRISPR, within a few decades it is conceivable that millions of GM

humans could be born, particularly if some genetic modifications become

seen as giving children an advantage or are considered to be fashionable.

Keep in mind as well that the number of GMO sapiens would multiply

as the changes are inherited by each new generation of children.

One of these new GM people could be your child, grandchild, niece, nephew, sibling, friend, etc. In short, for better or worse if genetically modified people are made, it could easily be a development that personally affects us all.

What if I could make a designer baby for you? My TED talk

On Halloween I gave a TEDxVienna talk (click above) on giving consideration to the possibility that we may be headed toward a new reality in the next 15 years in which there are designer babies. What would that mean for society? Could a new eugenics be gaining ground? How would a world with designer babies impact us all individually?

How do we promote the valuable CRISPR-based research going on in labs around the world, but at the same time reduce the risk of negative outcomes with premature clinic attempts at human modification?

I also discuss my own family’s history where they had to leave their home in Vienna due to the eugenics of World War II.
CRISPR designer baby talk

In my talk I also mention last week’s summit at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS; #GeneEditSummit) that tackled the path forward. My view as articulated in my TED talk was that we need a moratorium, but the NAS meeting did not reach that consensus.

Where do we go from here?

If you are interested in this topic, other resources include a Reddit AMA that I did yesterday and my new book, GMO Sapiens.

Poll finds near equal split on question: would you have a designer baby?

A few weeks back I started a poll focusing on whether people would have a designer baby if they could.Poll Designer Baby

With nearly 200 responses so far, the results are very mixed (see image).

One conclusion from this I think is that we need more information on possible risks versus benefits. Another element here is that the poll, as one commenter pointed out, did not divide between health-related and enhancement motivations behind having the designer baby. I may do a future poll including that divide.

Looking at the votes geographically, interestingly respondents in the UK were shifted more toward “Yes” than other countries such as the US.

A reminder that Internet polls are non-scientific.

Poll: Would you have a genetically modified baby?


Please tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did.