Designer Babies: The Nuclear Option
The USA FDA has scheduled hearings on designer babies. Once you start hearings, you know there’s only one way down the rabbit hole. Or up the mountain, depending on your perspective. As we recall from Frontera 3D, in our increasingly inward-directed universe, down and up are always the same.
The aim of the proposed therapies is to help women who cannot conceive healthy children, owing to defective mitochondria in their eggs. Mitochondria–which carry their own chromosomes–have been the sleeper factor in IVF modification. Mitochondria, being derived by evolution from bacterial passengers, have a borderline status–more than cytoplasm, yet not part of the Mendelian nuclear DNA. In some cases, it’s possible to fix a mother’s eggs by injecting functional mitochondria from another woman’s egg cytoplasm. The only alternative women have is for their male partner to fertilize donor eggs from a different woman. The child then has the father’s sperm, but none of the mother’s genes. Nuclear gene therapy would make it possible to “fix” the future baby by providing the mother’s own nuclear genes.
But now, according to the NYTimes, the FDA is considering allowing modification of “nuclear material.” The mother’s nuclear chromosomes will replace the nucleus of the egg donor, while maintaining the donor cytoplasm and mitochondria. At first glance, it’s not clear how the nuclear option differs from what we do already, providing donor cytoplasm from genetically healthy eggs. But the future implications are interesting. If we replace a donor nucleus in full, why not replace one in part? A single chromosome, perhaps, encoding human growth hormone? Or the eye color genes?
The NYTimes Op Ed ponderously considers the possible ramifications such as possible side effects for the baby. Side effects are a minor concern IMHO, as any baby conceived in the back seat of a car has more pressing concerns for its future. But the future in which we increasingly design our children is worth considering. Why not future children with perfect pitch, synesthesia and prehensile tails?
If the thought gives you pause, try reading Beyond Therapy—not the play, but the biotech ethics report commissioned by W. Bush before 9/11. We forget that before 9/11 the USA’s primary preoccupation was stem cell research, with a surprisingly unpredictable array of partisans for and against. Beyond Therapy is well worth a read, if only for the eloquence of it prose and the earnestness of its devotion to hu/man tradition. I always assign it for Bio Sci Fi. And then we go on to celebrate our future children’s synesthesia.