Brave New World may be a lot closer than we had thought.
Just a few years ago most scientists thought that the technical barriers to eliminating some inheritable diseases and producing designer babies through genetic engineering would keep that technology on the back burner for decades, if not centuries.
But a new report out of The Genetics & Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University points to recent developments that could "catapult us over what were understood to be the principal technical obstacles" to changing the genetic code so that future generations would be free from the threat of certain diseases. Or perhaps bigger and stronger. Or smarter. Or prettier.
It's called "human germline genetic modification." Germline comes from the word germination, and it means the seed, or the egg, and the various processes that begin a new life. It is different from somatic genetic engineering, which seeks to alter or replace genes in a person with a disease. That alteration is not passed on to the offspring, whereas germline changes will affect all future generations of the altered embryo.
It's similar to cloning, but it has received far less public scrutiny, and that has some experts worried.
"The various technologies that will be required to successfully achieve human germline genetic modification are coming to the point where if somebody very skilled and very driven were to want to do this, they could potentially do it very soon," says geneticist Audrey Huang, a spokesperson for the center.
That's a real problem because genetics is a very incomplete science at this point, and no one really knows what's going to happen when someone starts tinkering with the genes at the germline level. In fact, no one will know until the child is born, and then, of course, it will be a bit late to say "oops."
"Most safety risks would be to the resulting child," the report warns. Elsewhere, it adds:
"The safety of germline genetic modification is further complicated by the fact that some problems might not be evident until well after the genetically modified child is born or reaches adulthood, when the problems already could have been passed to the next generation."
That's one reason many countries have already banned human germline genetic modification. But not the United States. In this country it's rarely discussed except among elite groups of scientists and policy makers. So as it stands now it's probably harder to get a new drug approved for the common cold than it would be to toy with permanently altering the human genome.
And the irony in all of this is it isn't necessary to take such draconian measures to avoid genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell, or Huntington's disease. Since both processes require intervention prior to in vitro fertilization, it's simpler and safer to toss the eggs with the unwanted gene and implant only the healthy eggs rather than trying to alter any of them through genetic engineering.
But you can bet your test tube that somebody's going to try it anyway. And probably pretty soon. Not because they want to treat a disease. But because some rich daddy wants a daughter with blonde hair and blue eyes.
He'll find that's a tougher challenge than preventing a disease, because far more is known about the gene that carries cystic fibrosis, for example, than the genes that make us prettier, or smarter, or whatever.