Friday, February 13, 2009

Designer babies

Enhanced or unenhanced? You be the judge... From the episode Space Seed (trailer); full video.

McCoy: The Eugenics Wars of the 1990s.
Spock: Your attempt to improve the race by selective breeding.
McCoy: Oh no not our attempt, Mr. Spock. A group of ambitious scientists.

Soon to be outlawed? Probably not in Asia...

WSJ: Want a daughter with blond hair, green eyes and pale skin?

A Los Angeles clinic says it will soon help couples select both gender and physical traits in a baby when they undergo a form of fertility treatment. The clinic, Fertility Institutes, says it has received "half a dozen" requests for the service, which is based on a procedure called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD.

While PGD has long been used for the medical purpose of averting life-threatening diseases in children, the science behind it has quietly progressed to the point that it could potentially be used to create designer babies. It isn't clear that Fertility Institutes can yet deliver on its claims of trait selection. But the growth of PGD, unfettered by any state or federal regulations in the U.S., has accelerated genetic knowledge swiftly enough that pre-selecting cosmetic traits in a baby is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

"It's technically feasible and it can be done," says Mark Hughes, a pioneer of the PGD process and director of Genesis Genetics Institute, a large fertility laboratory in Detroit. However, he adds that "no legitimate lab would get into it and, if they did, they'd be ostracized."

But Fertility Institutes disagrees. "This is cosmetic medicine," says Jeff Steinberg, director of the clinic that is advertising gender and physical trait selection on its Web site. "Others are frightened by the criticism but we have no problems with it."

PGD is a technique whereby a three-day-old embryo, consisting of about six cells, is tested in a lab to see if it carries a particular genetic disease. Embryos free of that disease are implanted in the mother's womb. Introduced in the 1990s, it has allowed thousands of parents to avoid passing on deadly disorders to their children.

...In a recent U.S. survey of 999 people who sought genetic counseling, a majority said they supported prenatal genetic tests for the elimination of certain serious diseases. The survey found that 56% supported using them to counter blindness and 75% for mental retardation.

More provocatively, about 10% of respondents said they would want genetic testing for athletic ability, while another 10% voted for improved height. Nearly 13% backed the approach to select for superior intelligence, according to the survey conducted by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine.

There are significant hurdles to any form of genetic enhancement. Most human traits are controlled by multiple genetic factors, and knowledge about their complex workings, though accelerating, is incomplete. And traits such as athleticism and intelligence are affected not just by DNA, but by environmental factors that cannot be controlled in a lab.

While many countries have banned the use of PGD for gender selection, it is permitted in the U.S. In 2006, a survey by the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University found that 42% of 137 PGD clinics offered a gender-selection service.

The science of PGD has steadily expanded its scope, often in contentious ways. Embryo screening, for example, is sometimes used to create a genetically matched "savior sibling" -- a younger sister or brother whose healthy cells can be harvested to treat an older sibling with a serious illness.

It also is increasingly used to weed out embryos at risk of genetic diseases -- such as breast cancer -- that could be treated, or that might not strike a person later in life. In 2007, the Bridge Centre fertility clinic in London screened embryos so that a baby wouldn't suffer from a serious squint that afflicted the father.

...For trait selection, a big hurdle is getting enough useful DNA material from the embryo. In a typical PGD procedure, a single cell is removed from a six-cell embryo and tested for the relevant genes or SNPs. It's relatively easy to check and eliminate diseases such as cystic fibrosis that are linked to a single malfunctioning gene. But to read the larger number of SNP markers associated with complex ailments such as diabetes, or traits like hair color, there often isn't enough high-quality genetic material.

William Kearns, a medical geneticist and director of the Shady Grove Center for Preimplantation Genetics in Rockville, Md., says he has made headway in cracking the problem. In a presentation made at a November meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Philadelphia, he described how he had managed to amplify the DNA available from a single embryonic cell to identify complex diseases and also certain physical traits.

Of 42 embryos tested, Dr. Kearns said he had enough data to identify SNPs that relate to northern European skin, hair and eye pigmentation in 80% of the samples. (A patent for Dr. Kearn's technique is pending; the test data are unpublished and have yet to be reviewed by other scientists.)

Dr. Kearns' talk attracted the attention of Dr. Steinberg, the head of Fertility Institutes, which already offers PGD for gender selection. The clinic had hoped to collaborate with Dr. Kearns to offer trait selection as well. In December, the clinic's Web site announced that couples who signed up for embryo screening would soon be able to make "a pre-selected choice of gender, eye color, hair color and complexion, along with screening for potentially lethal diseases."


DB said...

I think it's just a little remarkable that you can remove one cell from a 6-cell embryo and not end up with, you know, 5/6 of a person...

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

I think people will get used to the idea. And as long as it's only things like eye color or so, it's not much of a deal (at least not to me, be sure people will be arguing about this still in the next century). In some sense, people are doing such selections already anyway. A friend of mine was looking for an egg donation, and her requirement was the donor be blue eyed and blond because her whole family is and she didn't want the child to be constantly reminded of not really fitting in. (The child is indeed blue eyed, though the hair is more reddish blond).

Anonymous said...

Brave New World?

Four generations of idiots is enough...four genrations of brown eyes is enough...four generations of fatties...etc.

When the rich can't look down on the poor as biologically inferior socialism is inevitable.

Artificial selection available to all parents will "at last end the age of cant".

Anonymous said...

Only tangentially related, but I'm bound to pass on the best ever title of a magazine article. A few years back, The Economist ran a story about how there are only 9 young woman for every 10 young men in China, entitled 6.3 Brides for 7 Brothers.

Anonymous said...

DB's point is important. Read the article "Cleavage (embryo)" in the wikipedia. If you like genetic testing of this nature, humans, it would seem, are just lucky.

Anonymous said...

Why not in Asia, Steve? Are attitudes that different?

Steve Hsu said...

Asians are more pragmatic and have less baggage in this area. Also, there is no equivalent of political correctness on these issues -- people are free to judge the data as it stands.

Anonymous said...

When the rich can't look down on the poor as biologically inferior socialism is inevitable.

I expect these technologies will increase the gap between rich and poor at first; only the upper and upper-middle classes will be able to afford these. The lower classes will continue popping out their low quality children without genetic enhancements. Even after the treatments become affordable for everyone, the lower classes will still be more likely to have unplanned children.

I would certainly use these to enhance the height and intelligence of my children, and probably to make sure my sons are dark complected.

Anonymous said...

"make sure my sons are dark complected"

Are you a ginger man?

Examples of ginger men:
Ronald MacDonald
Consn O'Brien
Damian Lewis

It is true, as Eric Cartman has said, that ginger people have no soul.

But what's wrong with Boris becker or Boris Johnson?

kurt9 said...

I think this stuff will be slow to be adopted. Parents are inherently conservative and the parents that can afford this kind of technology are more conservative still. Parents are more likely to undergo an new treatment (i.e. lasix, etc.) themselves than they are to have their kids do it.

PGD is a screening technology with very little downside risk. So, it is very quickly adopted into the marketplace. Actual genetic engineering of kids has much more risk. So, parents will not go for it until they are reassured that it is entirely safe.

Steve Hsu said...

>PGD is a screening technology with very little downside risk. So, it is very quickly adopted into the marketplace.

Yes, but screening for more than disease can be added to PGD once more genetic data is available. Parents will be able to decide *which* of their many fertilized embryos they would most like to have carried to term, based on predicted characteristics. It's not risky at all.

kurt9 said...

True, but this is just embryo selection. It is not really "de-novo" designer baby stuff.

Anonymous said...

It is optimizing from a bag of genes from the parents. It will be a very long time before the effect of man made genes can be predicted. True designer babies would have the best alleles from around the world.

Anonymous said...

I think having some "hang ups" about this kind of thing is healthy - at least it means the case will have to be well made, because its really the sort of topic that demands a long hard think about where it leads.

What would you do, Steve, given the option?

I've no strong opinion on the safety aspects, however I think the social aspects are horrifying.

Steve Hsu said...

I already have kids, so it's too late for me :-)

I don't think there's any stopping this kind of thing once the economics are right. Think of how many people use steroids, visit a plastic surgeon, buy Baby Einstein videos for their kids, etc.

Father X said...

Please sign my petition and pass it on



Artificial Insemination used for Immigration & Paternity Fraud and the
complete removal of this child's rights to a father.

Baby X has been stripped of his rights to have a father, by the State
of New Jersey and Bergen County Courts, by a malicious plot involving
NJ Bergen County Family Court and the corrupt Judge Edward Torack, Dr.
Tanmoy Mukherjee, of the Mount Sinai Hospital/Reproductive Medical
Center of New York.

Baby X is a victim of a sinister plot by the ruling class to destroy
Black Families and Men using the false flag of Child Support system
and Women's Rights. Baby X was created during unauthorized artificial
insemination by Dr. Mukherjee and a Black Woman facing deportation for
defrauding a university in New York City. In order to avoid
deportation, Dr. Mukherjee and The Mother of Baby X conspired together
to take and illegally use the semen of a Black Male US Citizen in
order to perform an artificial insemination, and create an anchor
baby. They also conspired to victimize the said Black Male with the
responsibility of Child Support without his consent to an IVF.

During hearings at NJ Bergen County Family Court, Baby X's Father was
able to present a copy of Baby X's Mother's immigration records (which
should a history of immigration fraud conducted by Baby X's Mother)
and get Baby X's Mother to admit, under questioning, that she had the
child via Unauthorized Medical Experiment/IVF.

Immediately after clear evidence was presented in the court, that Baby
X was created by an via Unauthorized Medical Experiment/IVF for the
purposes Immigration Fraud, the Father was completely banned from all
courts and all judges - by the corrupt Judge Edward Torack of NJ
Bergen County Family Court.

The court ban against the Father to Baby X includes the denial of the
following rights:

1) Ban against a "Request for a DNA test of all parties"
2) Access to appeal & any other judges/courts
3) Ban against visitation between Baby X and Father X.
4) Any modifications to Child Support, including a decrease in income
of Father X
5) Any ruling on evidence pertaining to immigration and paternity
fraud in the case.

The end result is to totally strip Father X from any rights to the
child except to shut up and pay. He did not have a right to say when
where and how to have a baby, and he did not have a right to have any
representation in court. And therefore the State of New Jersey has
stripped Baby X's right to have a Father!

How To Get Pregnant said...

It is all Genetic stuff. Its not in your control till you modify your genes

gender selection said...

Right now, the medical procedure with the highest success rate of getting you a boy (or a girl if this is what you want,) is called PGD which stands for “pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.” This takes place in a lab and is basically artificial insemination which takes it to the next level to determine gender.

anfernee harrison said...

how come bardock has blue eyes and goku has brown eyes?

anfernee harrison said...

see im a twin.. i have light brown eyes amd ny brother has dark drown eyes.. but we look like each other. explaine why we have different eye colors... thanks

LaurentMelchiorTellier said...

There are three possible explanations.

1) You may not be identical (homozygous) twins, but rather paternal (heterozygous) twins. This happens much more often than you and most people think.

2) Individual cells of all people undergo mutations post-impregnation. Some people even have two different eye-colors within their own body (left eye blue, right eye brown, fx), this is called mosaicism. Same for homozygous twins.

3) Not all traits are strictly deterministic. If you cloned yourself a hundred times, some traits would come out the same way every time, others have more variation, even despite your almost identical environments. Pigmentation tends to have a lot of this type of variation, as evidenced by the many cloned animals humans have produced: they tend to have fairly diverse surface patterning (fur, skin, etc), much like you and your bro have similar, but not identical fingerprints.

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