27 June 2022

Approve editing

Young Britons choose "designer" children

Varvara Kolobova, Octagon

A survey conducted by the international research company Ipsos showed that more than half of Britons support the idea of editing the human genome. Most consider the technology necessary to prevent serious and life-threatening diseases in children. Young people also like the very opportunity to choose the gender or eye color for the future heir.

According to a survey commissioned by the fertility and genomics charity Progress Educational Trust, 53 percent of people support the use of genomic engineering techniques to prevent children from developing serious diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

Far fewer respondents (36 percent) approved of the DNA editing procedure to prevent children from having milder diseases, such as asthma. And a fifth of the respondents were in favor of creating "designer" children – the so-called babies whose genetic composition was selected or changed to include or remove a certain gene at the request of parents.

The younger generation turned out to be the most supportive of the appearance of "designer" children: 38 percent of respondents aged 16-24 and 31 percent aged 25-34 supported the use of gene modification technology to allow parents to choose the child's height, for example, or the color of eyes and hair.

The authors of the study call the propensity of young people to approve genomic engineering methods for choosing preferred characteristics striking:

"It's worth paying attention to these views, but we must continue to prioritize medical needs first."

In the UK and many other countries, editing the genes of embryos intended for pregnant women is illegal, but restrictions can be lifted if studies show that this procedure can safely prevent serious diseases.

Many scientists say that the technology will seriously help in the fight against a variety of hereditary diseases, including muscular dystrophy and the rare hereditary Tay–Sachs disease, which gradually destroys the nervous system. Theoretically, damaged genes can be rewritten in embryos fertilized by in vitro fertilization (IVF), and the embryos can develop into healthy children.

These considerations were guided by the Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui, who announced in November 2018 the birth of genetically modified babies. He said that before transplanting the mother's embryos, he changed their genomes using CRISPR technology. Twins whose father was HIV-positive were born resistant to HIV infection. Prior to this event, gene editing was studied in many laboratories, but in animals, not in humans.

The experiment was met with sharp criticism around the world and inside China. Scientists said that the use of technology was not of great importance for medicine and could make mistakes in the genomes of twin girls. The description of the experiment has never been published in any scientific journal. Later, the American edition of MIT Technology Review received drafts of an article by a Chinese biologist, but the materials, according to one of the experts, were replete with "blatant scientific and ethical errors."

He Jiankui was placed under house arrest and then detained. In December 2019, he was convicted by a Chinese court, which stated that the researcher deliberately violated medical rules and "recklessly applied gene editing technology in human reproductive medicine."

A Chinese biologist went to prison, but this did not put an end to the fundamental study of human embryo editing methods.

In May of this year, a group working with human embryos from IVF clinics published the next results of the study. According to the materials, CRISPR technology can rid a newly fertilized egg of an extra copy of the chromosome, that is, solve a problem that can lead to Down syndrome and other diseases.

Other specialists are studying how to introduce hereditary genetic changes through human sperm or eggs. "Quite a lot of people are pushing the boundaries in this regard, although few of them believe that the work is ready for clinical practice," explained a specialist in developmental biology from the Francis Crick Institute in London. Robin Lovell-Budge. "We are still waiting for better tools," added Shukhrat Mitalipov, a biologist at Oregon Health and Science University.

Meanwhile, the director of the Institute of Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester is a professor of bioethics John Harris spoke in support of the "maximum possible choice" of parents when choosing the physical traits of their children, if these traits themselves are not harmful.

"I don't think creating either harmless or enhanced traits in our children is fundamentally wrong if we can do it," Harris said.

"If there's nothing wrong with wanting a cute brown-eyed girl, how can you give it up if you get the opportunity? We are too ready to shout about eugenics when people want to take advantage of innocent preferences."

However, opponents of such experiments point to a new argument that has been added to other ethical issues. If the governments of almost all countries of the world were able to oblige the entire population to get vaccinated during the pandemic, it is difficult to doubt that they will not be able to require gene editing to "optimize the health" of their population, they noted.

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