Opinion | Hamilton: The ‘Brave New World’ of designer genes
November 8, 2018
This column is not about Calvinism: The worship of designer jeans. No, this newspaper column is about the genes within our DNA. Normal genes are, well, normal. But certain mutated genes can cause some really bad diseases such as cancer or conditions such as spinal deformities. Mutated genes can be and, sometimes, are passed down from generation to generation.
There is a process whereby genes can be altered by something called gene editing. The common method for gene editing uses engineered nucleases or molecular scissors to make breaks at certain locations in the genome. Then, the breaks are repaired via nonhomologous end joining or homologous recombination that results in the desired edits. Gentle readers, I have no idea what all this means except to say that scientists can find the undesirable gene or genes, cut them out, and stop the undesirable gene or genes from affecting the yet-to-be-born child.
So, let's say you are a young couple looking to start a family; however, one or both of you have family histories of certain life-threatening diseases or deformities. Is there anything you can do in advance to protect your child-to-be from a mutated gene or genes?
Yes. The female can undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF). Using pre-implantation genetic testing, technicians can inspect the fertilized egg for the presence of the unwanted, mutated gene or genes and remove it or them. Voila, that family history of suffering a particular disease or deformity would be brought to an end.
Okay. So, why isn't this miracle of science done routinely? First, there is a general cultural bias against the idea of "designer babies." In the developing world there is a strong cultural bias against any kind of tinkering with the reproductive process. Moreover, this is especially so when precious scientific resources are used to produce a child with a certain color of eyes, or hair, or gender. But the bias recedes when IVF and pre-implantation genetic testing are used to prevent life-threatening diseases.
Secondly, the larger obstacles, to include the more developed nations, are cost and the extra effort required by ovarian stimulation and egg harvesting. On average, a young couple would have to invest over $30,000 to produce a baby who should be free of the family's hereditary diseases. For couples just starting out in life, the process could be cost-prohibitive.
And then there is the age-old conundrum of "the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer." If only the wealthier societies can afford gene alteration, then it stands to reason that the wealthier are going to live healthier and thus longer lives than those in the poorer societies. So already baked into the gene-altering pie are the seeds of class warfare…
For example, Facebook employees are already given money for egg-freezing, a technique for "banking" human eggs in preparation for a future point-in-time when gene editing technology is more fully developed and, hopefully, less expensive.
Spoiler alert: One might imagine a time when the computer wizards of Silicon Valley edit their genes and those of their children to the point that they outlive us all. We might see a time when Silicon Valley rules the world. We report. You decide.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, is a laureate of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame. Hamilton is the author of "The Wit and Wisdom of William Hamilton: the Sage of Sheepdog Hill."
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