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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Generation Next: Designer Babies

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty continues his series "Generation Next: Re-making the Human Race," with a look at inheritable genetic manipulation and the possibility of creating designer babies.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Each week, we bring you Living on Earth to help keep you informed. Now it’s your turn to tell us how we can serve you even better. So we’ve set up a survey on our website at www.loe.org where you can give us some feedback and help us plan for the future. Let us know what stories you like, or don’t like, and please tell us what we should more of less of. And what about the internet? How can Living on Earth serve you best over the Web? Just for taking the time to give us this information, we’ll also send you something. Everyone who responds to this survey will automatically get a chance to win a neat little waist pack, generously donated by the outdoor clothing, technical apparel and gear maker Patagonia. And everyone will also receive the Living on Earth list of the top ten household plants that can help keep the air clean in your home and office. So please, go to www.loe.org and tell us what you think about what we do and how we might do it better. That’s www.loe.org. And click on the Living on Earth Poll. Thanks. And now we continue with our series GENERATION NEXT: Re-Making the Human Race. Today, we look at the possibility of creating designer babies. In animal experiments scientists have already developed techniques to change the genetic code in the early stage of an embryo’s life. The resulting offspring has that genetic change in every cell of its body, and its offspring will also have the same changes. It’s called inheritable genetic manipulation. Proponents say that, applied to humans, inheritable genetic manipulation could eliminate the worst genetic diseases and help parents have children with the exact traits they want. But critics say that’s a new form of eugenics that could lead to dangerous attempts to design a master race. Producer Bob Carty reports.

CARTY: Squibnocket Beach is on the southwest corner of Martha’s Vineyard, famous tourist island off the coast of Massachusetts. Today there are some children throwing stones at the waves, a few brave teenagers swimming in the cold water and a retired couple walking on sand dunes. All amidst them, the sounds of the beach. Waves breaking on the shore. Pebbles rattling as the water retreats. Seagulls above, bell buoys out at the point, and everywhere, the wind. Squibnocket Beach would have looked and sounded much like this even 150 years ago, but back then, many of the people on the beach would have heard this: silence. It’s the silence of the deaf. In the middle of the nineteenth century, in the area around Squibnocket Beach, one in every four babies was born deaf. This part of Martha’s Vineyard had the highest national rate of deafness in the country.

NICHOLS: Every family expected to have somebody, whether it be a great aunt or an uncle or a cousin or a sibling, to have a hearing loss.

CARTY: Marci Nichols is a long-term resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Her own daughter was born deaf, possibly because of a peculiar genetic development in the historical settlement of the island. It began 400 years ago, with a group of English immigrants who came from county Kent with a recessive gene for deafness.

NICHOLS: There was one deaf person that came over in the early sixteen hundreds and settled here on the island, and because it was a very isolated, very rural community, they tended to marry cousins. There might be two or three children out of 16 of 17 that would be hearing impaired in a family.

CARTY: For 300 years the deaf people of Martha’s Vineyard had no idea their disability was caused by their genetic code. Today we not only understand that but almost have the tools to change it. Some scientists say that they will soon be able to rid the world of genetic diseases and disabilities. And Gregory Stock believes it should be done. Gregory Stock teaches at U.C.L.A.’s School of Medicine and is the author of a new book called Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future.

STOCK: I think that the most dramatic form of the manipulation of our genetics will be germ line intervention – the word germ line comes from the germination of a seed, and that’s actually going into the first cell of a human embryo and altering the genes. Now, if you go in and make an alteration in the first cell of an embryo, those alterations would be copied into every cell in the adult organism, so it’s possible to avoid the most obvious simple genetic diseases by doing that sort of intervention. That’s a revolutionary development.

CARTY: Germ line manipulation is distinct from other genetic technologies. Genetic screening is commonly used today to identify, and possibly abort, embryos with diseases like Cystic Fibrosis or Tay-Sachs. But screening doesn’t change any genes. Gene therapy treats somatic, or non-reproductive, cells. But germ line manipulation changes all of our cells, including eggs and sperm, so that the changes are passed on to all future generations. Theoretically, that means we could rid the human gene pool of recurring genetic diseases. And if we could wipe diseases and disabilities, why not use the same technology to give our children new abilities – the traits or enhancements we would want them to have. We could gain, for the first time in human existence, the power to direct our own evolution. Gregory Stock says: Why not?

STOCK: There have been some international polls about whether parents would want to enhance their children, either physically or mentally, if they could. And the results have varied from a low of about 25 percent in Japan to as high as 80 percent of parents who say they would, in Thailand and India.

CARTY: Are you talking about parents sort of deciding that they could, what, enhance their children with a Michael Jordan gene for athletics and a David Letterman gene for comedy and a Mother Theresa gene for compassion?

STOCK: Well, I think that these choices would be to choose a child who is much more likely to have certain kinds of personalities and certain kinds of capabilities – to give their child all the best advantages.

LANZA: What you’re seeing here is one of the microscopes and these are the micromanipulators. You actually will have a plate that will have an egg cell in it. An egg is smaller than the tip of a pin.

CARTY: In a research lab in Worcester, Massachusetts, Robert Lanza shows off the tools of the new biotech revolution. Lanza is vice-president of medical and scientific development at a company called Advanced Cell Technology.

LANZA: And these probes actually allow us to suck out the chromosomes and the DNA out of these egg cells.

CARTY: Robert Lanza is at the forefront of controversial research into cloning human embryos for stem cells. And the tools he uses for that could also be used to make germline changes in the human race. But Robert Lanza says he and his company, much as they like to be seen as scientific pioneers, will not do that. But he understands the temptation.

LANZA: We already know how to use gene knockout, for instance, to create twice the body mass, or the muscle mass, in a mouse. By simply knocking out a gene known as myostatin, a mouse or other animals will create twice the muscle mass. So you could easily understand where a parent might say, Okay, if I knock out this gene in my child, that child will now be the greatest athlete on the planet. But the sad thing is, what if that child grows up and wants to play chess? The parent will have made that decision for the child, and so we don’t believe that it’s correct to tamper with the germline.

CARTY: While promoters of germline manipulation trumpet the choice it gives to parents, scientists like Robert Lanza point out how it takes away choice for the child. But that’s just one of the critiques of germline manipulation. There are also questions as to whether it could ever be done safely. Take the experiments done so far in animals. The so-called Arnold Schwarzenegger gene was given to cattle, to make them produce more meat. Unfortunately, they couldn’t stand up. In mice embryos, one extra gene caused the offspring to develop cancer at 40 times the normal rate. And another genetic change in mice produced infertility. But it was only recognized three generations later. The problem is that genes do not act in isolation. If you change one gene, you don’t know what it will do to others. And humans have at least 30,000 genes. As Robert Lanza points out, genes that we think are bad today could prove to be really valuable tomorrow.

LANZA: For instance, there is something known as sickle cell anemia, which people say, oh, this is a horrible disease. But in certain environmental settings, that has an advantage. It has, for instance, a protective effect against malaria. So again, I wouldn’t think that we should pretend to know enough about human evolution to know that eliminating this disease is going to be desirable in the long-term for the survival of the species.

CARTY: Which raises a fundamental question: Are we right to assume that it’s always good and desirable to get rid of genetic diseases or disabilities?


CARTY: A good place to ponder that question is Squibnocket Beach. A hundred and fifty years ago children would have been playing on this beach, just as they are today, but they would not be talking to each other. They would be communicating with their hands. What happened here was deafness was so common it wasn’t considered a handicap. The community made up its own sign language. Everyone learned it, the deaf and the non-deaf. There was signing in the schoolroom, signing in church services, signing at the town hall meeting. According to Marci Nichols, that meant that a genetic disability, deafness, became normal.

NICHOLS: It was just an accepted way of being. It was just some children had blond hair, some children had brown eyes, some children couldn’t hear well. It was an accepted part of the island. It was an abnormal part that was accepted as normal. And I think my daughter’s perfectly normal. Acceptance is a wonderful way of being.

CARTY: But acceptance of disabilities is threatened by new genetic technologies, according to Andy Imparato. Imparato is the executive director of the American Association for People with Disabilities, in Washington, D.C. He argues that germline engineering is rooted in the flawed idea of fixing people with disabilities instead of fixing society’s attitude towards them.

IMPARATO: All of the various genetic interventions start with the proposition that, of course, disability is an anomaly that, once the science is there, we’ll be able to wipe off the face of the earth. And to me, that’s very scary. Many of us are proud to be people with disabilities, aren’t looking for a cure or a fix – it’s not a high priority for us. What we’re looking for is a higher quality of life, with our conditions, and trying to get the society to adapt so that we can get the supports we need to participate fully.

CARTY: The greatest fear for germline manipulation is that it could represent a new kind of eugenics. Eugenics was a notion, born in the late 19th century, that the so-called worst elements of society shouldn’t have children. In the early 20th century it led to laws in the United States that eventually sterilized 60,000 people considered genetically defective. And then there were the frightening eugenic experiments by Nazi Germany, in its quest for a super race. Proponents of germline manipulation say these are exaggerated fears, that there are too many Hollywood plot lines about genetically engineered super warriors. James Watson, the co-discovered of DNA, has said that, if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we? And Gregory Stock, of U.C.L.A., argues we should embrace this new technology.

STOCK: The hostility towards these sorts of possibilities is that it’s unnatural, that this is playing God – it’s very much a religious reaction. I would say that, yes, it is like playing God, and we are playing God in all sorts of ways.

CARTY: Is this a new eugenics?

STOCK: This is eugenic, in the sense that is an effort to avoid diseases, to enhance human potentials. But most people are not opposed to that. We already do eugenic things when we abort a child that is going to have Huntington’s disease. It’s when government intervenes and makes larger decisions for people and enforces certain ideas about what is a desirable or undesirable child. And as long as we protect and safeguard our freedoms, then it will not be a problem for us.

ANNAS: To my mind, that misses the point. It’s not that eugenics is public or private, not that it’s state sponsored or corporate sponsored. It’s what it does to humanity.

CARTY: George Annas is a lawyer, and chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights at Boston University. George Annas contends that germline engineering will be something only the rich can afford, and that, as wealthy parents in wealthy countries enhance their children, it will create a new class division in society, one with a potential for violence.

ANNAS: We will inevitably then create two classes of people, the gene rich and the gene poor, and I’m pretty certain that’s going to wind up in some kind of genocidal exercise. At some point there’ll be a sufficient number of them to either pose a threat to us or we’ll pose a threat to them, and they will look at us as a sub-species and/or we’ll look at them as a sub-species, different than human and therefore not endowed with human rights, that we can kill, enslave, deport, do all kinds of horrible things with. And I think that one group will kill the other group. And that kind of what I call genetic genocide should be simply unacceptable.

CARTY: Many critics of germline manipulation would like to see the practice banned outright. Among them is Patricia Baird. Baird is a pediatrician and geneticist, and she was the chair of a Canadian royal commission that was recognized internationally as one of the most comprehensive studies on reproductive technologies. Dr. Baird is a woman of science, who, nonetheless, criticizes technologies when they diminish what it means to be human.

BAIRD: I think that is truly frightening, because it could change our species and our societies over the next millennium, in a way that we become products and manufactured, and other people choose our futures for us. If we want to improve children’s lives and how they’ll do, we need to love them, we need to nurture them, we need to have good educational systems, good work place policies. We already know an awful lot about how to do that.

CARTY: Hundreds of years ago, the people of Martha’s Vineyard made a decision about their humanity. They couldn’t do anything about inherited deafness, so they accepted it, and changed the way they communicated with each other. As a result, they made a lot of lives fulfilling, and normal. Today, we may soon have the ability to make other kinds of choices, ones with the promise of repairing and enhancing the human genome, but also with the risk of polluting it. How we make those decisions will, like the decisions made here, also reflect on the character of our humanity. For Living on Earth, I’m Bob Carty, on Martha’s Vineyard.

[MUSIC: LUX, "So La Ra Dsa", WINTER CHILL 2 (Hed Kandi - 2000)]

CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Our series continues next month with a look at gene therapy. Scientists believe directing therapy at an individual’s genes can be beneficial, but some worry about the dark side.

WOMAN: I’ve gotten several calls from groups who want to explore the possibility of using genetic engineering to create soldiers who are going to be less affected by toxins like Agent Orange, or using genetic information about people for bio-warfare – in fact, to be able to create an anthrax that hones on to a genetic code, so that you can target certain ethnic groups.

CURWOOD: It’s gene therapy, when our series, Generation Next: Remaking the Human Race continues next month. Before we go, let’s put our ear to the ceiling of a cottage in Norfolk, England. Beetles occupied an exposed oak ceiling beam. Sound recordist Chris Watson set up his microphone in the wee hours of the morning to capture these sounds.

[CHRIS WATSON, "Death Watch Beetle," OUTSIDE THE CIRCLE OF FIRE, (Earth Ear - 2000)]



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