“Designer baby” used to be a term that was mostly a joke. It implied a baby that had its DNA altered in its embryonic state to create a “superior” and, indeed, “customized” baby. Science-fiction loved to toy with the idea, imaging dystopian societies which bred only specific kinds of people and weeded out genetic traits it didn’t want, many of which were not health-related.
A “designer baby” may still be a terrifying picture of taking the fate of humanity into the impartial hands of science and the often-cruel hands of society. But babies who can have genetic traits altered to avoid horrifying genetic diseases in its future life? That’s not science-fiction. That’s fact.
On Wednesday, the journal Nature reported that an international team of scientists has, for the first time, successfully edited the DNA in a human embryo. Previous attempts had yielded unsavory results regarding additional unwanted mutations.
The experiment involved attempting to remove a gene that causes cardiomyopathy, a heart disorder. Dozens of donated eggs were fertilized with sperm donated by a man carrying a mutation for cardiomyopathy. Simultaneously, the scientists injected a microscopic gene-editing tool into the eggs. With the tool, they sliced into the mutated gene. The cut triggered a repairing mechanism in the embryos, which then began to repair the defective gene on their own.
When the experiment was done, it had managed to correct the defect in almost two-thirds of the embryos.
While none of these embryos have a future as an actual baby, the implications are staggering. Genetic diseases come in all shapes and sizes, with nightmarish names like Huntington’s Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, and even some forms of Breast Cancer.
With this new science, it is possible that genetic diseases, in the future, will be a thing of the past.
Let’s just hope that science stops at genetic diseases, and lets everything else stay a pleasant surprise for the parents.