Robert Lanza: Suddenly, the age of designer babies is upon us

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The implications of this research are both enormously important and troublesome. It revives many of the issues raised by reproductive cloning. We now have a working technology whereby anyone, young or old, fertile or infertile, straight or gay, can pass on their genes to a child from just a few skin cells. It also fast-forwards the era of designer babies to the present.

Genetic modification of the resulting stem cells could be carried out by a scientist tomorrow. On the positive side, this technology could also be of great value in the area of conservation biology. My company has already filed patents on this, as well as for its use in agriculture. The genes from endangered animals that die could be reintroduced to maintain the survival and genetic diversity of the species. Even an extinct species such as the bucardo mountain goat could be resurrected using this technology if combined with an ordinary goat-breeding programme.

Considering the immense power of this technology, it is imperative that an effort is made by scientists and governments to understand the ramifications, and to ensure that it is used in an ethically responsible way for the benefit and progress of humanity.

Again, this research opens a whole ethical can of worms. Now that live mice have been generated there's no biological reason why it won't work in humans. In fact, you could generate iPS cells from anyone with just a few hair follicles or skin cells. So if you had a few skin cells from Albert Einstein or perhaps a hair follicle from the Pope or the Queen you could generate iPS. Since the cells are immortal they can be grown and distributed anywhere in the world. Any couple could go to an IVF clinic and have a child that is half, say Albert Einstein or perhaps Brad Pitt or Elizabeth Taylor.

The potential for genetic abuse is equally troublesome. For instance, the technology already exists to genetically increase the muscle mass in animals by knocking out a gene known as myostatin, and could be used by a couple who wants a great child athlete. Injection of a few genetically modified iPS cells into an embryo could do the trick. Tampering with the human genome in this way crosses the line and is wrong. Human evolution has taken millions of years, and it would be naïve and foolhardy for us to start designing children now that the scientific tools exist. It could be scientifically and ethically irresponsible to use the technology for reproductive purposes.

The author is the chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology

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