Geneticists Getting Close to Engineering Good Looks

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."

Swift Research, No Legislation

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.

What got us to this point is a series of achievements -- call them "breakthroughs" if you want to use that overworked word -- in laboratory experiments. Just five years ago one major report indicated these achievements were probably still a long ways down the road.

Scientists in various labs have produced genetically modified mice by altering the sperm used to fertilize the eggs, creating succeeding generations of modified mice. Some stronger, some bigger, some faster. Some lab animals have even been given the gene for green fluorescent protein that makes them glow in the dark.

Thus germline modification has now been shown to be possible in lab animals, but not yet in humans. But scientists have been able to genetically modify human stem cells, according to the center's report, and that could be another major step toward germline modification.

So what do the folks out there think about all of this?

In an effort to measure public attitudes, the center surveyed 4,834 Americans and found that most (57 percent) approve of the technology if it is used to improve human health, while only 19 percent approve using it for "enhancement."

It's likely those numbers will change dramatically in the coming months if this subject gets the kind of attention it deserves.

Enhancement, or making our offspring what we wish we were like, is where the big bucks will be found, and don't expect your insurance company to pay for it. So only rich people will be able to have the kind of babies they want, but they better be ready for surprises. Instead of blue eyes, they may wind up with a baby that glows in the dark.

Society Shaping

This is, of course, not the first time that humans have dabbled with changing future generations.

The most chilling section of the center's report describes "eugenics," a term coined by Sir Francis Galton in the late 19th century to refer to the "study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations."

Galton believed that many of the attributes required for success were inheritable, and that led to various eugenics movements as people sought to encourage gifted parents to have more children, and discourage some from having any.

"Many states enacted laws permitting the involuntary sterilization if institutionalized persons and 40,000 eugenic sterilization operations were recorded in the U.S. between 1907 and 1945" the report states. One law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and was reflected in the now infamous opinion of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

That philosophy was carried even further in Germany, where 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilized and 200,000 others were killed, including babies with Down syndrome and elderly psychiatric patients. All in the effort to produce a super race.

Hopefully, that kind of thinking is gone forever. But maybe not.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.