Genetics Will Let Parents Build Their Baby

ByKATE SNOW via via logo

Nov. 3, 2006 — -- They are questions that are at once repulsive and intriguing.

What if you could predetermine the genetics of your newborn baby? Choose your baby's hair color? Eye color? Brain power? How athletic the child will be? Or take it even further -- what if you could choose to have a child with a talent for playing the piano or a master at chess?

Would you do it? Would you tinker with nature?

These are questions parents will face head on in just 25 years.

In fact, some of this genetic manipulation is already possible and happening in the year 2006.

For around $12,400, a couple can use in vitro fertilization and choose whether to implant a male or female embryo in the mother's womb. It's not common, but it is quietly happening at fertility clinics all across the country.

And the scientific knowledge exists to do even more.

"We already have the ability to isolate genes that affect a lot of the physical traits humans have and the physiological traits," said geneticist Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public policy at Princeton University.

"What's going to happen over the next 10 [years] to 25 years is that we are going to fill out the puzzle. We are going to understand how all of the genes in the genome effect how tall we are, whether we are likely to be thin or heavy, and then I think scientists are going to probe the brain and understand how people have different personalities and different levels of abilities," Silver said.

The big question in the future will be: Do parents want to take that understanding of which genes dictate which traits and use it to alter the genetic makeup of their children?

"The question is whether people want to use the technology for that purpose," Silver said.

At a recent gathering of pregnant mothers in New York City, we asked the women how they would feel about selecting certain traits for their babies and found a lot of resistance to the idea.

"I think once you start choosing, you know, what your baby should look like and what it should be and what the sex should be, you take the excitement out of the unexpected," said Aleona Sencion, who is seven months pregnant.

Risa Goldberg says it would change the nature of our society.

"I think the world will be a little bit more competitive. If everyone programmed their own kids, then everyone would be 'super smart' or 'super athletes.' And everyone would be the same. There would be a lot of the same type of people. There wouldn't be as much diversity or variety," Goldberg said.

Just three months into her pregnancy, Janice Chabkin had considered preselecting the sex of her next child.

She already has a girl, and she and her husband thought they'd like the guarantee of knowing they would have a boy this time around.

But ultimately, the couple decided against it.

"We didn't do it because if something ever went wrong with the child, I would never be able to forgive myself and I'd always be looking back on it and say, 'Is it because I did this? And is the reason [something went wrong] because I decided to do pregender selection?'" she said.

But we found some expecting mothers who said they'd be interested in shaping the future for their unborn children.

"I could be a little selfish in the fact that I want my baby to look more like me, not my husband," Shabina Sheikh said. "Have my pretty nose and not have my husband's flat chin."

And when we asked the women whether it would be all right to change genetics to avoid a disease, the answers changed dramatically.

"I would say yes," Goldberg said. "I am a hypocrite, but I think health is the most important part of anything. As long as the kid is healthy that's all I care about."

And that answer is a good indicator for the future in the field of genetic manipulation.

Scientists say the ability of a parent to shape a child's health may well be the biggest advance 25 years from now.

Already, geneticists can tell parents whether an embryo carries a gene that would make a child more susceptible to certain cancers.

It is controversial, but some parents are already choosing to implant embryos that do not have those defective genes.

In 25 years, the experts say, we will only know more about genes and their connection to disease and health.

Theoretically, science could create babies who are super-resistant to diseases.

"I don't think parents are going to be so vain and use the technology to pick out a particular hair color or eye color when they would really like to do is have a child that is going to be healthy and live a long life. And I think really what the most important thing parents are going to want to select are those genes that protect against cancer or heart disease. I think that's what is going to happen," Silver said.

The reason science is moving so quickly has to do with one discovery.

A few years ago, scientists mapped out the human genome. Think of it as a giant code book, or catalog of all the genes in the human body.

"Decoding the genome gave us the encyclopedia, but we don't have the index yet," said futurist Paul Saffo. "We have all the information, and now everybody is pouring over it with computers and trying to figure out what it all means."

Experimenting on mice, geneticists are constantly trying to isolate new genes and figure out what they do.

Of course, genes aren't the only factor in determining traits -- environment matters, too. And that means determining why a person is a talented pianist or smart in mathematics is very tricky stuff. Many interacting genes could be involved in one single trait.

But scientists are hopeful that eventually parents will be able not only to choose an embryo without a defective cancer gene, for example, but able to actually alter the genetic code and make changes to it.

"We already perfected that technology in mice so it's already being applied to lots of mammal species -- [sheep], cows, goats," Silver said. "There is absolutely no reason why that same technology couldn't be applied to human embryos."

No reason -- except for some serious ethical concerns. As technology develops, ethicists are watching closely. And many are very wary of allowing parents to make genetic choices.

"It could radically change our view of human life, our view of children, our view of parenthood, our view of our relationships to each other and what it means to be human," said Boston University bioethicist George Annas.

"These are very gut basic things, and we don't want to mess with them unless the benefits outweigh the risks," Annas said.

Annas and others also worry about who will get the benefits. Will only rich Americans be able to afford genetic tinkering?

"There is going to be a growing gap between the haves and have-nots, and so the children of the rich really might be beautiful, and the children of ordinary people won't have access to the same sorts of expensive technologies," Saffo said.

Whether that happens in 25 years depends on what parents decide is appropriate to do with the scientific technology we will almost surely have.

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