Creating a generation of bioengineered humans

<span property="schema:name">Creating a generation of bioengineered humans</span>

Creating a generation of bioengineered humans

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      Adeola Onafuwa
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    “We are now consciously designing and altering the physiological forms that inhabit our planet.” - Paul Root Wolpe.  

    Would you engineer the specifications of your baby? Would you want him or her to be taller, healthier, smarter, better?

    Bioengineering has been a part of human life for centuries. 4000 – 2000 B.C in Egypt, bioengineering was first used to leaven bread and ferment beer using yeast. In 1322, an Arab chieftain first used artificial semen to produce superior horses. By 1761, we were successfully crossbreeding crop plants in different species.

    Humanity took the big leap on July 5, 1996 at the Roslin Institute in Scotland where Dolly the sheep was created and became the first mammal to have been successfully cloned from an adult cell. Two years later, we experienced an increased eagerness to explore the world of cloning which resulted in the first cloning of a cow from fetal cell, the cloning of a goat from embryonic cell, the cloning of three generations of mice from the nuclei of adult ovarian cumulus, and the cloning of Noto and Kaga – the first cloned cows from adult cells.

    We were advancing quickly. Maybe too quickly. Fast forward to the present, and the world faces incredible possibilities in the field of bioengineering. The prospect of designing babies is by far one of the most astonishing. Scientists argue that advancements in biotechnology have provided much needed opportunities to combat life-threatening diseases. Not only can certain diseases and virus be cured, they can be prevented from manifesting in hosts.

    Now, through a process called germline therapy, potential parents have a chance to alter their offspring’s DNA and prevent the transfer of lethal genes. In the same light, some parents choose to afflict their offspring with certain deficiencies, as odd as it might seem. The New York Times published a detailed article reporting how some parents intentionally choose malfunctioning genes that produce disabilities like deafness and dwarfism to help produce children more like their parents. Is this a narcissistic activity that promotes the deliberate crippling of children, or is it a blessing to the prospective parents and their kids?

    Abiola Ogungbemile, a clinical engineer who works at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, expressed mixed reactions about the practices in bioengineering: "Sometimes, you never know where research is going to take you. The point of engineering is to make life easier and it basically involves choosing the lesser evil. It is life." Ogungbemile further stressed that although bioengineering and biomedical engineering are different practices, "there have to be boundaries and there has to be structure" guiding the activities of both fields.

    Global Reactions

    This idea of creating humans according to personal preferences has evoked a mixture of panic, optimism, disgust, confusion, horror and relief worldwide, with some people calling for stringent ethical laws to guide the practice of bioengineering, especially concerning in-vitro fertilization. Are we being myopic or is there a genuine cause for alarm at the idea of creating “designer babies?”

    The Chinese government has begun taking noticeable steps to actualize its goal of creating detailed maps of smart individuals’ genes. This would inevitably affect the natural order and balance of intellectual distribution. It is a deliberate attempt, one with little regard for morality and ethics, and with the China Development Bank funding this initiative with a hefty $1.5 billion, we can be sure that it’s only a matter of time before we see a new era of super intelligent humans.

    Of course, the weaker and less fortunate among us would be subject to more hardship and discrimination as a result. Bioethicist and director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, James Hughes, argues that parents have the right and freedom to choose their child's traits – cosmetic or otherwise. This argument is founded on the notion that the ultimate desire of the human species is to attain perfection and prime functionality.

    Money is heavily spent on the social development and academic merit of children so they can have an advantage in society. Kids are enrolled in music lessons, sports programs, chess clubs, art schools; these are parents’ attempts to assist their children’s advancement in life. James Hughes believes this is no different from genetically altering the genes of a baby and infusing selective traits that will enhance the child’s development. It’s a time-saving investment and potential parents are basically giving their babies a head start in life.

    But what does this head start mean for the rest of humanity? Does it encourage the development of a Eugenic population? We could potentially compound segregation between the rich and poor since the process of inheritable genetic modification would undoubtedly be a luxury the majority of the world population could not afford. We could face a new era where not only are the rich better off financially but their offspring could also have a dramatically unequal physical and mental advantage – modified superiors versus unmodified inferiors.

    Where do we draw the line between ethics and science? Engineering humans for personal desires is an extreme technology, according to Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society. "We’ll never really be able to tell if it’s safe without doing unethical human experimentation. And if it does work, the idea that it could be accessible to everyone is specious."

    Richard Hayes, executive director of the Centre for Genetics and Society, admits that the technological implications for non-medical bioengineering would undermine humanity and create a techno-eugenic rat race. But pre-birth manipulation has accounted for 30 births between 1997-2003. It’s a procedure that combines the DNA of three people: the mother, the father and a female donor. It changes the genetic code by replacing lethal genes with disease-free genes from the donor, allowing the baby to retain its physical features from its parents while possessing the DNA of all three people.

    A genetically engineered human species may not be far away. We must be cautious moving forward as we debate this natural desire to seek improvement and perfection through seemingly extraordinarily unnatural means.