Fábregas: Designer babies a bold move

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Even though I don't have a dog, I've always had a liking for crossbreeds — Goldendoodles, Labradoodles and puggles. Some of them don't shed, are allergy-friendly and have fewer health problems. They're also quite cute, if you ask me.

In this world of pricey designer dogs, it's no surprise that scientists are talking about the possibility of genetically modified babies. First Goldendoodles, now Goldenbabies.

The Food and Drug Administration is considering trials of an in vitro fertilization technique that uses DNA from three people to create healthy embryos. Mommy, daddy and mommy.

Here's how it would work: Doctors take a mother's egg and remove any defective genetic material in the mitochondria, known as the powerhouses of the cell. They replace the bad stuff with healthy DNA from another woman. The egg is fertilized with the father's sperm and implanted in the mother.

Scientists call the technique “three-parent IVF.” The goal is to make babies free of inherited, mitochondrial diseases that are disabling or fatal. The diseases can lead to loss of motor control, muscle weakness and pain, liver disease and many other conditions. But take the faulty mitochondria out and, voila, a healthy baby is born.

Problem is such manipulation could open the door to genetically modified children, critics say. In other words, designer babies. While you're tweaking those faulty cells, why not tinker with the baby's eye color or height? Want a tall child with blue eyes? Or would you prefer a dark-skinned girl with brown eyes and a high IQ?

The Center for Genetics and Society, a California nonprofit, says the technique “raises grave safety and social concerns.” The group worries that the technique carries “a wide range of predictable and unpredictable risks for any resulting children and for future generations.”

In other words, this technique might not be the end of it. Approving it might lead to other ways to modify embryos.

Three-parent IVF has supporters. Advocates say it could allow parents to have healthy children. They object to the term “designer babies” because mitochondria has nothing to do with traits such as height or eye color. To their point, who wouldn't want a perfect child, one who isn't susceptible to a lifetime of pain and suffering caused by horrible diseases?

Supporters argue no one is altering the mother's DNA, but rather allowing it to grow in a healthy environment. They argue that gene-based treatments are being tested for some forms of cancer.

This is much more radical, however. If the FDA moves it forward, it would mark the first time scientists change the genetic material of humans in a way that would affect generations. Though this is a procedure with a noble goal, it's one with enormous social and ethical implications that ought to be considered. We're not talking about cute dogs, after all.

A bigger question must be asked: Why is the FDA even considering this controversial procedure, when there are more pressing matters to examine? It takes years for the FDA to certify medicines and vaccines and approve medical devices that could save lives. Should we worry more about living humans, instead of focusing on unproven technology?

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