Scientists Can Now "Edit" Embryos, But More Questions Arise

When parents find out that they are expecting a baby, they hope that their soon-to-be son or daughter will be born healthy, with 10 finger and 10 toes, etc. Perhaps they also wish for a kid who will one day ace the SAT and go on to become a doctor or a lawyer; Maybe they picture themselves raising the next Michael Phelps or Simone Biles. And — for better or for worse — scientists in the United States just made a huge step toward a future in which parents may be able to actually literally have the baby they always wanted, right down to the freckles or ability to sing. The MIT Technology Review reported Wednesday that, for the first time in the United States, scientists can now "edit" embryos.

Researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland successfully altered the genes of a human embryo — and the breakthrough could ultimately lead to humans living longer and healthier lives one day. The gene-editing technique, CRISPR, proved both safe and efficient in correcting genes that cause genetic diseases in newborns. That's pretty cool news, as advocates of the practice believe that it could one day totally eliminate inheritable diseases like cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, and ALS — giving parents with these genes relief from worrying about passing them down.

The science isn't quite to the point where it's available to anyone who wants to try it out, though. None of the embryos on which Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the head of OHSU's Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy, and his team experimented were implanted into a womb. In fact, they did not develop for more than a few days. But that doesn't mean that the researchers who are in the midst of developing this technology aren't considering its potential moral and ethical implications.

Writing for The Washington Post, Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Vivek Wadhwa posed some truly thought-provoking (not to mention uncomfortable and downright disturbing) questions about the advancement: Will parents one day have the option to "edit" their embryos to make them smarter and stronger? Could bioterrorists kill millions with the same technology that could eradicate malaria? Could widespread use of CRISPR on embryos lead to the emergence of a "genetic underclass" if well-off families can afford to "improve" their embryos, and others can't?

It's pretty mind-boggling, which may be why consideration of the future of human editing so often turns to the dystopian. The prospect of so the so-called "designer babies" to which advancement could give rise is both enthralling and terrifying.

Put in that context, it's not altogether mystifying that such gene alteration is illegal in 29 countries. Still, making the practice totally off-limits shuts down the possibility of putting an end to genetic diseases and otherwise improving human's lives. The big question now is this: How do we balance such an outcome with the possibility of creating a race of humans whose traits have been hand-picked by their parents or others? Is it a slippery slope?