Designer baby revolution could be less than two years away, research suggests

Scientist says average disease-free lifespan could be 'substantially extended'

Sarah Young
Tuesday 19 November 2019 10:48 GMT
Video: Pregnant women, mothers and babies in prison at severe risk of coronavirus, campaigners warn
Video: Pregnant women, mothers and babies in prison at severe risk of coronavirus, campaigners warn (Getty/iStock)

The creation of so-called designer babies could begin within two years, according to new research.

Dr Kevin Smith, a bioethicist from Abertay University in Dundee, has published analysis that claims the risks of gene editing are now low enough to warrant its use with human embryos.

The academic has argued that creating designer babies is both “ethically justifiable” and “highly desirable”, and predicted that the technique could kick-start a revolution in producing genetically-modified (GM) people.

Writing in the journal Bioethics, Dr Smith added that research in this area could offer hope to parents at risk of transmitting serious genetic disease to their future children.

“The human germline is by no means perfect, with evolution having furnished us with rather minimal protection from diseases that tend to strike in our later years, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia,” he said.

“GM techniques offer the prospect of protecting future people against these and other common disorders.”

Dr Smith explained that this has previously been achieved to an extent in GM experiments on animals and that if common disorders could be avoided or delayed by genetically modifying humans, the average disease-free lifespan could be “substantially extended”.

However the academic, who is programme leader for Abertay’s biomedical science courses, did warn that an ethical approach must be at the heart of any advances if public trust is to be won.

“Society is largely opposed to genetically modifying humans and the negative publicity generated by the ethically problematic first-ever production of GM babies in China last year was strongly criticised by most geneticists and ethicists, further hardening attitudes against the creation of so-called ‘designer babies’,” he said.

“However, by delaying an ethically sound move towards a world where we can reduce genetic disease, we are failing those who suffer through disease and debilitating conditions.”

Dr Smith compared the advancement to IVF, arguing that if such negative attitudes to biomedical innovation had prevailed in the 1970s, the development and use of IVF would have been “severely delayed, and indeed might never have come to fruition”.

The world's first gene-edited babies were born in China last year in an effort to make them resistant to HIV.

In research that would be illegal if carried out in most countries, Professor He Jiankui and his team said they altered the embryos of seven couples undergoing fertility treatment.

One successful pregnancy resulting from this treatment resulted in twin girls born earlier this month that the scientists claimed were naturally resistant to HIV.

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The development was widely criticised with some calling it a “monstrous” human experimentation.

The paper is published in the medical ethics journal Bioethics.

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