Though much antipathy remains over genetically modified foods, U.S. regulators are now considering another type of genetically modified organism (GMO) — the designer baby.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Tuesday began two days of hearings to discuss allowing scientists to experiment on humans with a new technology intended to eliminate genetic disease, forever. By replacing a problem gene in a woman’s egg with a donor’s version, scientists may soon combine the genetics of three parents to propagate a generation of humans mostly free of hereditary disease.
Investigator Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, has asked the FDA for permission to begin testing the technique in five women at risk of birthing children with serious diseases causing blindness, epilepsy, and organ failure. To date, the Oregon team has used the technique only in monkeys but is eager to begin experimenting with the human genome.
“Once you make this change, if a female arises from the process and goes on to have children, that change is passed on, so it’s forever,” Phil Yeske, chief science officer of the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, told Bloomberg. “That’s uncharted territory; we just don’t know what it means. Permanent change of the human germline has never been done before, and we don’t know what will happen in future generations.”
As with other genetically modified organisms, such as beets and corn, the GMO baby has the potential to eliminate many of the congenital diseases passed down through the mother’s family line. With a little monkeying around, scientists may be able to effectively “cure” rare disease affecting one in 4,000 people around the world. Debilitating conditions such as multiple sclerosis and other mitochondrial diseases may go the way of polio and chickenpox, enthusiasts say.
Vamsi Mootha, a professor of systems biology and medicine at Harvard University, says the bioengineering procedure is less of a treatment than an absolute cure. “What the FDA needs to think about is that this isn’t a procedure to repair mitochondrial disease,” she told Bloomberg. “It’s designed to prevent disease. It’s designed to offer a woman who’s a carrier for disease more options.”
Likewise, Mitalipov defended the technology as less sinister than it might seem to the general public. "We want to replace these mutated genes, which by nature have become pathogenic to humans," Mitalipov told the AP. "We're reversing them back to normal, so I don't understand why you would be opposing that."
Still, some critics argue the technology presents humanity with a losing ethical battle as our species begins to design its own future, creating babies not only free of disease but tailored to more superficial specifications including height, coloring, and maybe even personality.