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Designer Babies: The Nuclear Option

February 25, 2014

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 Therapynot 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.

  1. February 25, 2014 12:41 pm

    Cool title, Joan. I take exception to prehensile tails–mainly because it’s a pretty bold fashion statement–when you think about growing up as the first kid with a tail.

    And with synesthesia, too, but only because I’ve noticed that finer senses usually take up gray matter–although, I suppose that might be what the other 85% of our brains are for (I don’t know the real number, but you do).

    As far as perfect pitch goes–it’s an ability I’ve always envied, but I have noticed that somebody like Matt Glaser gets physically discomfited by an out-of-tune instrument.(Now that everything’s going ‘digital’ maybe that’s an antique concern…)

    And I think the back-seat-conceived do face problems, but of a parental nature, not necessarily genetic–a subject one finds oddly overlooked by these baby-making-planners. Will we not need a Nuclear parent before we can entrust anyone with the well-being of the Nuclear baby?

  2. February 25, 2014 1:50 pm

    s XperDunn notes, there is clearly a range of acceptable vs. potentially unacceptable modifications. At this point, we know next to nothing about the effects of genetic modification. We should definitely allow fixing defective genes as the cost/benefit is high. This includes replacing defective mitochondria. Modification of other genes in the hope of providing perceived advantages, that I am not so sanguine about. But let’s posit a future when a phenotype is totally predictable from a genotype. Then we have the danger of steering evolution in potentially undesirable ways, potentially weakening our long term survival in favor of short term generational advantage. (Doesn’t this sound like what the elites are doing financially today in the US?). Gattaca was an exploration of the societal consequences of such genetic determinism, even if the plot was about the protagonist overcoming them. I would also raise the moral issue about modifying children without their consent. This strikes me as potentially repugnant as FGM.

    Having said that, it would not surprise me if we don’t create genetically “superior” humans, able to survive the ravages of their environment much more effectively – disease resistant, radiation tolerant, long lived, etc.

  3. SFreader permalink
    February 25, 2014 5:22 pm

    I skimmed through only a very short portion of the Beyond Therapy report whose central question, for me, boils down to the question: If the random gene-shuffle we’re born into is somehow intrinsically ‘better’ or more ‘noble’ than a reality of our own making, then why does so much human endeavor (culture including education, legal systems, technology, etc.) through the ages – not just now – go into mitigating this?

    Also – IVF has been around for over 30 years now but has not replaced ‘normal’ fertilization, or even adoption which is/can be even more expensive (and risky) than IVF. I haven’t read of any stories about billionaires using IVF (or even ultrasound) to screen for ‘better’ progeny. Another fear that’s usually pulled out whenever discussing medical intervention is that it may lead down the slippery slope of creating a race of Übermensch.

    Stem-cell/transplant therapy generated similar fears.So, either the people with the financial wherewithal are able to maintain their privacy about this very well, or the appeal of alternate – medically invasive – means of having/improving babies/themselves is much lower than feared. (Steve Jobs who undoubtedly had access to the best medical advice and technology is the only example I can think of. Unfortunately, he waited too long before seeking a transplant.) I personally know people who’ve undergone these treatments (it’s no picnic) and so far I haven’t seen any evidence that either of these therapies have created ‘Frankenstein monsters’.

    • February 25, 2014 5:40 pm

      I agree with you and Alex–but I still want people to read that report; it’s the most literate version I’ve seen of the “other side.” Also, I wonder sometimes about our obsession with making high-IQ ageless offspring. Look at all the drugs we put them on to get through school (and then condemn them for self-medication). I’m enthusiastic about gene tech, but believe in continual reflection. We shouldn’t just put our ethics on autopilot.

      • SFreader permalink
        February 26, 2014 1:36 pm

        Just wondering: What was the initial public reaction to blood transfusion? That’s probably the first ‘transplant’ (and gene mixing of sorts) ever performed.

        • February 26, 2014 4:14 pm

          Did you men blood transfusion, or marrow transplant? Blood transfusions are very temporary, with blood cells being eliminated within a few months. Marrow transplants, like other organs, are for the lifetime of the receipient.

          • SFreader permalink
            February 27, 2014 2:07 pm

            I did mean blood transfusions because I think blood was the first human ’tissue’ to be ‘transplanted’. And apart from Jehovah’s Witnesses, can’t think of any group that currently is anti-blood transfusion.

            Some of the 1990’s controversy/ill-will toward gene therapy was given a boost thanks to Martin Cline. Cline was a U.S. Heme who conducted human gene therapy in both Israel and Italy without any government/medical community permission. And he did this mostly because he wanted to be first. [See Mauro Giacca’s ‘Gene Therapy’.] The way Cline managed to get his test patients signed up for this at respected medical/university hospitals was similar to kiting a check. (‘Oh, the other institution participating in this research has already granted permission for step A. All you have to do is let me do step B.’)

        • February 26, 2014 4:41 pm

          The early blood transfusions–from animals to people–were highly controversial, because most people died. It’s easy to look back and say that was a bad idea, but it looked reasonable then (17th century). It wasn’t till 1900 that doctors began to get a clue on human blood types.

          Interestingly, the main reason somatic (NOT inherited) gene therapy became controversial in the 1990s was the same reason–patients died (although they would have died anyway). It wasn’t till 2008 when adeno and lentiviral vectors proved safe. The HIV-derived vectors are surprisingly safe as well as permanent–ironic given their history.

  4. February 25, 2014 7:17 pm

    @SFReader why does so much human endeavor (culture including education, legal systems, technology, etc.) through the ages – not just now – go into mitigating this?

    I think one answer is “the selfish gene”. We prefer to have our offspring have our genetics, for good or bad. It is only when you have severe genetic handicaps do you try to mitigate. For example, Tay Sachs and Niemann Pick genetics are screened for. In the near future, I think that instead of aborting, the genes will be fixed to not only remove the defect in the embryo, but to effectively eliminate the defect in most populations.

    As for getting better progeny, the best you can do safely is to find a mate with what appears to be “desirable genes”. At this point, we really are stuck with a guessing game of the progeny of the marriages of geniuses and beauties.

    From a social POV, there is the sense that randomness of outcome is desirable, rather than fixing the genetic lottery. That should increase the possibilities of life’s chances, which might have made sense in prehistory. Of course in the modern world, choosing the right parents is the way to go.

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