The Future of Embryonic Enhancement

Wednesday, December 06, 2017
Family at Home
The Benefits of Embryonic Enhancement for Intended Parents
Technology can be a scary thing. It often brings about changes that seem foreign to many people and can be difficult to understand. But once individuals have a better grasp of the capabilities and benefits offered, they usually start to view technological advances in a new way.

Scientific discoveries, no matter what benefits they might indicate, are generally met with skepticism by the general public. That skepticism is often combined with moral and religious scrutiny as well, especially when the science behind the discoveries deals with human biology.

This past summer, a team of researchers in Oregon conducted the first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos. They used a gene-editing technique called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to change the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos. The embryos were not allowed to develop beyond a few days, but the experiments are a significant step toward correcting genes that carry inherited diseases.

Embryonic Cells

Current Technologies for Gene Corrections

The techniques used in the Oregon research do not involve treatment of a diseased embryo, but actually create a genetically modified embryo. The purpose of the treatment was to create a child who did not have a particular genetic disease that normally would have been passed through DNA from the parents. Many fertility experts currently use a technique that is readily available to select an embryo that does not pass on disorders. It's called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a simple method used to diagnose and weed out defective genes carrying serious genetic disorders prior to implanting them into the woman's uterus.

Some might prefer the Oregon method, rather than the PGD version, primarily because the embryos that are found to be defective during the PGD process are destroyed. The technique used during the Oregon research treatments correct any defects in the embryo itself. By altering the DNA of human embryos through a process called germline engineering, scientists say inherited diseases, such as hemophilia, genetic blindness, HIV, and sickle cell anemia, can be eradicated. The process is similar to that used for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Through this process, any children who are genetically modified will pass on those changes to their children as well as upcoming generations.

Embryonic Enhancement

What exactly is embryonic enhancement? It is a procedure used to modify human traits that are not diseased, and are considered normal. Embryonic enhancement has been described as a means of optimizing the capabilities and attributes of an individual. The gene either supplements normal gene function, or is replaced with enhanced genes that are genetically engineered.

Genetic enhancement is not a new concept. Human growth hormone (HGH) has been available since 1985, and was often prescribed for children who were of considered shorter than the norm due to growth hormone deficiency. It wasn't easy to find HGH in earlier years because it had to be harvested from the pituitary glands of cadavers. Today, however, it can be produced through DNA technology using new combinations of genetic material. The new DNA technology used to create HGH has made the hormone easier to acquire, and with that easier retrieval comes new uses for it. Some doctors are now prescribing HGH to enhance the growth of children who are of shorter than their peers, but have no hormone deficiency.

Baby with Teddy Bear

Moral and Ethical Concerns

Bringing a healthy child into the world is the goal of any expecting parent. Many parents wouldn't think twice about preventing a devastating genetic disorder from affecting their child if they had the power to do so.

Yet, embryonic enhancement entails a much broader picture for people to consider, and does carry some moral implications and responsibilities that should be recognized and debated not only by the scientific community, but by religious and ethics organizations as well.

Some critics have voiced concerns over “designer babies” being created. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences released a report in February supporting germline modification, but did not agree that genetic enhancement should be used to increase intelligence or other abilities, questioning whether the benefits of using the research in this way would cause more harm than good. There was also a question of fairness because the technology would only be available to some people. As for creating a baby directly from an edited IVF embryo, Congress not only voted against it, they blocked any funding trials with that goal. Genetic enhancement can only be used to eliminate serious diseases.

Canada has strict laws against altering genes and DNA that could be passed on to subsequent generations, and the act of doing so is considered a criminal offense. However, there is a growing number of scientists and academics calling for less regulation surrounding genetic research and treatment.

Happy Family in the Park

The Surrogacy Connection

The goal of genetic embryonic modification isn't to create a “superhuman”—at least, that's not a concern for most parents. The intended parents we help at CSP hope to create a healthy child through surrogacy who will have a safe and healthy life, free of disease. Many parents have already suffered the heartache and loss of a baby during pregnancy. Others have failed to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term. Genetic embryonic modification removes the chance of your child suffering from a disease passed to them through your DNA. It also protects your future grandchildren, their children, and their children's children from those diseases. It removes the “bad” gene from the equation. This technology is a way to take the fear and guesswork out of the process, not a way to create a population of superhumans. It is a personal decision that should be discussed and questioned openly for everyone involved in your surrogacy process. But genetic embryonic modification is becoming less of an anomaly and more of a reality as larger amounts of research dollars are supporting it. The Center for Surrogate Parenting monitors the strides made in this area because it allows us to provide new options to help our intended parents create healthy, happy families.

Learn more about CSP, the surrogacy process, the available options for conception, and other important details on our website.