Designing Babies: A Eugenics Race with China? the Rapid Pace of Genetic Research, the Author Argues, Guarantees That We Will See Genetically Manufactured Babies before the End of the Century

Article excerpt

Human eugenics and the creation of genetically engineered advanced humans is probably inevitable. Granted, such a bald statement flies in the face of certain U.S. laws and most bioethical thinking, but within the next two decades, we will likely see human beings born with enhanced genetic characteristics in China, and competitive nations such as the United States are unlikely to allow a "smart-baby gap" to emerge.

Many Americans will overcome their misgivings and support efforts to keep up in this new realm of international competition. The time has come to ask two questions: What is the potential of genetic engineering, and why is China predisposed to adapting genetic engineering to human enhancement?

A Brief History of Genetic Engineering

The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 eventually led biochemists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen to develop the techniques of genetic engineering in the early 1970s. Recognizing the extraordinary power and potential danger of this new technology, scientists agreed to a temporary moratorium on further research until guidelines could be developed to minimize the risk of a genetically engineered organism accidentally escaping into the wild. But biotechnology continued to advance rapidly when the moratorium ended just a year later. Today, many historians and prognosticators believe that biology and biotechnology may be the queen of twenty-first-century science just as physics and quantum mechanics were the queens of twentieth-century science.

When microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an employee of General Electric, developed an oil-eating bacterium for possible use in cleaning up oil spills in 1971, the company applied for a patent on it that same year. What followed was a controversial landmark 1980 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that permitted life created in a laboratory to be patented. In 1988, the U.S. Patent Office took the next step by granting a patent on a transgenic mouse developed at Harvard University that had been altered to make the animal susceptible to breast cancer. Since then, mice have been altered to be susceptible to other diseases so that new medicines and vaccines can be tested before use on humans.

The 1990s saw experiments in gene-transfer therapy, where a gene is introduced into a patient (often via a virus) because the patient either lacks that gene or his copy of that gene does not function properly. Gene therapy may prove effective in treating diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington's disease, which have a strong genetic component. Ultimately, gene therapy could be used to permanently alter a person's body so that it regularly creates any protein or enzyme that had previously been lacking.

The international Human Genome Project, launched in 1990 and completed in 2003, provided a completed sequence of 3.1 billion gene pairs making up 35,000 to 40,000 human genes. Researchers around the world are trying to understand what each of these genes actually does, especially in combination with other genes.

The biotechnology industry, based on genetic engineering, reached $91 billion in revenue in 2004, with more than three-fourths of that research activity headquartered in the United States. Scientists have already made "designer babies" through the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, where embryos still in the test tube are checked for genetic diseases such as Down's syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, or sickle-cell disease. This technique has also been used to check for immunological compatibility when parents are trying to have another child in order to save an existing child in need of a bone-marrow donation.

In the future, genetic engineering will eventually allow us to design children in a test tube, but that goal will be reached through a series of efforts aimed at more modest improvements. At first, the designs will just use probabilities, banking on knowledge of which genetic combinations are usually found in more intelligent people, or which genetic combinations might make the blood more efficient in transporting oxygen and thus increasing physical endurance. …