Insight With Beth Ruyak

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UC Davis Researcher Discusses Future Of 'Designer Babies'

NIH Image Gallery / Flickr

NIH Image Gallery / Flickr

What if you could alter your unborn baby’s genes to prevent her from inherited diseases like Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sach’s? That’s the potential upside of genetically altering human DNA. The downside is that we don’t know what happens to future generations if we start altering our DNA. 

It’s a contentious topic and the fear of altering our genetics ultimately leads to predictions of a dystopian future of designer babies. The rich could design their children to be smart, attractive and disease-free while the poor are left to languish in poverty. And while this example may be an exaggeration, it’s a genuine fear that keeps many researchers and world leaders opposed to altering human DNA.

But that may change. The National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine Committee on Human Gene Editing are meeting Thursday to discuss whether we should reconsider our opposition to altering human DNA. UC Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler’s new book “GMO Sapiens: Creating Designer Babies” explores this question. He joins Insight to explain what is happening.  

Interview Highlights:


On what makes a "Designer Baby" different 

In the past, we could and we could still do this today, we can genetically screen embryos not to have a disease causing mutation. The difference now is that we could go into a panel of those embryos and try to say “erase that mutation and re-edit it to a normal version.

Going further, people have suggested that we could alter traits, so we could not only try to prevent disease but we could say “try to make people with bigger muscles or taller people, people who are smarter.” You could see this starts to get controversial.


On the simplicity of CRISPR

I’ve never seen anything like this in science. Within just a few years, this CRISPR technology has sort of pushed aside all the other GMO technologies and it’s done this throughout the entire globe.


CRISPR compared to past technologies

CRISPR is sort of like this: I like to call it a Swiss army knife for our genome. It can go in there with a magnifying glass and find a certain gene, and then it’s got a scissor, so it can cut at that gene. And when our cells have a cut in their DNA, that sort of is a window of opportunity for us to rewrite that genetic code …  this is just 10, 20 times better than our past technology.


On his targets for GMO Sapiens

The targets to me that make the most sense would be genes that cause diseases. For example, a family that’s had Huntington’s disease for generations, we can screen embryos today to try to avoid those that have that mutations.

In principle, under certain circumstances, you could use CRISPR to go in these families that have Huntington’s disease, which is uniformly lethal to terrible disease and we could help the couple — maybe the father, maybe the mother carries the Huntington’s disease mutation.

We could essentially change that mutation; we could edit it back to the wild-type healthy copy. To me, that is a potentially responsible, exciting thing we could do to make a really big difference.

On his concerns over other possible uses for CRISPR

I get a little worried when we start talking about things like muscles and intelligence and looks. I’m worried that some people won’t be satisfied with just disease control.

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