How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Researchers from the University of Toronto published a new map of cancer cells' genetic defenses against treatment.
A moving target<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNjQ2Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDM3OTA0N30.z4u2eaulqRu8cslqqny8t9G7iaHr_DarbDJSFKLdDwI/img.jpg?width=980" id="21b22" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aefbbccdf3bb0d25bf14268ab87a821f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="IV drip" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: Marcelo Leal/Unsplash<p>Speaking to <a href="https://www.utoronto.ca/news/u-t-researchers-identify-genes-enable-cancer-evade-immune-system" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">U of T News</a>, lead author of the study molecular geneticist <a href="http://www.moleculargenetics.utoronto.ca/faculty/2014/9/30/jason-moffat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Jason Moffat</a> of the university's <a href="https://ccbr.utoronto.ca/donnelly-centre-cellular-and-biomolecular-research" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research</a> says, "Over the last decade, different forms of immunotherapy have emerged as really potent cancer treatments, but the reality is that they only generate durable responses in a fraction of patients and not for all tumor types."</p><p>There can be a significant degree of heterogeneity between cancer cells from human to human, and even within the same person, making the development of therapies maddeningly difficult. Attempting to address potential cancer-cell vulnerabilities across these variations is a life-or-death game of whack-a-mole.</p><p>"It's an ongoing battle between the immune system and cancer, where the immune system is trying to find and kill the cancer whereas the cancer's job is to evade that killing," says Moffat.</p>
Mapping the mechanisms<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNjQ3Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjQ1OTM0MX0.HNtivrlU9VBYxcG9JaWKvPJ5RrBsgqd8Fw6ohfSpfh0/img.jpg?width=980" id="0faa6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7687cdc5abe93503764c1c0401b65fd4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Illustration: genes (red, green, and blue spots within the nuclei of HeLa cells) artificially superimposed on images of multi-well plates.
Credit: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash<p>Moffat and his colleagues decided to investigate and identify genes within cancer cells that help them defeat treatment. Co-lead author Keith Lawson of Moffat's lab explains that "it's important to not just find genes that can regulate immune evasion in one model of cancer, but what you really want are to find those genes that you can manipulate in cancer cells across many models because those are going to make the best therapeutic targets."</p><p>To accomplish this, the researchers, working with scientists at <a href="https://www.agios.com" target="_blank">Agios Pharmaceuticals</a> in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first exposed cells from breast, colon, kidney and skin cancer tumors to T cells in lab dishes. This established a baseline of their responses to treatment. Next, using CRISPR, the scientists went through the cells, exhaustively turning off one gene at a time to determine its role in immunotherapy resistance by comparing the cells' response to the T cells compared to their original baseline response.</p><p>The team identified 182 "core cancer intrinsic immune evasion genes" that affected the cells' response to T cells. The fact that some of the identified genes were already known to be involved in resistance provided the researchers with some confidence that they were on the right track.</p><p>Still, many of the genes they ID'ed had not been previously implicated. "That was really exciting to see because it means that our dataset was very rich in new biological information," says Lawson.</p>
It's complicated<p>Unfortunately, Moffat's research also makes clear that defeating cancer-cell resistance is not as simple as removing certain genes. It's true that when the team switched off some of the genes they'd identified, the cancer cells became more vulnerable to T cells, but on the other hand, removal of some other genes made the cancer cells more resistant.</p><p>There also appear to be relationships between multiple genes that complicate matters. </p><p>The team explored the manipulation of the genes that allow cancer cells to engage in <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autophagy" target="_blank">autophagy</a>, the process by which cells clear out no-longer useful materials to facilitate speedy recovery from damage. Surprisingly, when the researchers deleted certain genes responsible for cancer cells' autophagy, they found the cells' resistance to T cells increased. Apparently, removing one autophagy gene strengthened another mutated autophagy gene.</p><p>"We found this complete inversion of gene dependency," said Moffat. "We did not anticipate this at all. What it shows us is that genetic context — what mutations are present — very much dictates whether the introduction of the second mutation will cause no effect, resistance or sensitivity to therapy."</p><p>There remains a long road ahead when it comes to unraveling cancer cells' resistance to immunotherapy. However, this new study presents a new map that can help scientists navigate what comes next.</p>
Is CRISPR the solution?
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic cripples the economy and kills hundreds of people each day, there is another epidemic that continues to kill tens of thousands of people each year through opioid drug overdose.
New research shows how Americans feel about genetic engineering, human enhancement and automation.
- A review of Pew Research studies reveals the views of Americans on the role of science in society.
- 4 key questions were asked to gauge feelings on genetic engineering, automation and human enhancement.
- Americans are split in how they view technology and many worry about its growing role.
Watch Elon Musk’s presentation on Neuralink here:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a646a0b439db89b498836659049faf35"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/lA77zsJ31nA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A punishment is handed down for performing shocking research on human embryos.
- In November 2018, a Chinese scientist claimed he'd flouted ethics and the law to edit genes in human embryos.
- Other Chinese scientists call He Jiankui's research "crazy."
- Three gene-modified babies are now living in China, future uncertain.
He's experiments<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjI2NTE1Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjE0MDI2Mn0.pD6za00yORg0ZH6nk0RJLh3SBOzed7uc1oh9yZDe3tc/img.jpg?width=980" id="98186" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5a306efb5afbd1a936315f28134a8417" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
He tells the world
Image source: Anthony Wallace/Getty<p>When He first announced his research in November 2018 at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, the scientific community was stunned at this deliberate flaunting of scientific consensus and Chinese law. A <a href="https://www.yicai.com/news/100067069.html" target="_blank">statement</a> from 122 Chinese scientists referred to He's work as "crazy" and called it "a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science."</p><p>He, an associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, claimed to have used CRISPR-cas9 in an attempt to provide embryos with immunity to HIV. The DNA in 16 embryos was altered, and 11 of these were used in six implant attempts that eventually led to the successful pregnancy of three infants. </p><p>After the announcement, Julian Savulescu of University of Oxford told <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/nov/26/worlds-first-gene-edited-babies-created-in-china-claims-scientist" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, "If true, this experiment is monstrous," adding that, "There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it. This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit." While there <em>are</em> <a href="https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-around-world/asia-pacific/china" target="_blank">HIV infections in China</a>, there was no indication that the embryos had been infected.</p><p>In his announcement, He claimed to have inserted a mutated form of the CCR5 gene into the embryos' genome, a particular mutation that makes a small number of people immune to HIV. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/nov/26/worlds-first-gene-edited-babies-created-in-china-claims-scientist" target="_blank">According to</a> Kiran Musunuru of University of Pennsylvania, though, the mutation has a nasty downside: People who have it are at higher risk of contracting other, non-HIV viruses, and of dying of the flu. So, while potentially shielding his subjects from HIV, He was, in essence, consigning them to a lifetime of enhanced vulnerability to all sorts of more common infections.</p><p>It's likely, however, that He never actually produced or inserted the CCR5 mutation in any event. Excerpts of He's documentation published in <a href="https://www.technologyreview.com/s/614764/chinas-crispr-babies-read-exclusive-excerpts-he-jiankui-paper/" target="_blank"><em>MIT Technology Review</em></a> suggest that what He created were some new kinds of CCR5 mutations, as well as unintended gene mutations elsewhere in the genome, and the effect of all of these edits are anyone's guess. After reviewing the excerpts, University of California, Berkeley's Fyodor Urnov <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/nov/26/worlds-first-gene-edited-babies-created-in-china-claims-scientist" target="_blank">concluded</a> He's claim was "a deliberate falsehood."</p>
What the court said<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjI2NTU5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MzkyOTExM30.W-iOUnHs0lXu59_5Wqq6ACnLouuscxg4dr-ySfS1pjg/img.jpg?width=980" id="03f5e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0ce199d4f8ebb8abea1a6b9b2341146e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
He Jiankui and his genetic research team
Image source: VCG/Getty<p>Two of He's colleagues involved in the research were also convicted by the Shenzhen court. According to Chinese news outlet <em>Xinhua</em>, the court found:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"The three accused did not have the proper certification to practice medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment. They've crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics."</em></p><p>The court also ruled that He had forged documents from an ethics review panel.</p><p>The other two researchers found guilty were Zhang Renli, who was sentenced to two years in prison and fined one million yuan (about $143,000), and Qin Jinzhou, whose 18-month sentence came with a two-year reprieve, and a 500,000 yuan ($71,000) fine.</p>