No, Bitches, It's Not a Designer Baby

It's inevitable: the media has not only confused human reproductive cloning with "designer babies," but in fact they have confused a stem cell experiment with designer babies too. I love my sensationalist science as much as the next person, but the London Times has gone batshit with its reports that a GM human embryo could lead to "designer babies" out there in the wilds of science land. Now all these anti-baby engineering groups are going nuts because nobody has bothered to explain the science to them. Even Wired picked up the story, though thankfully without the "designer baby" crap. So what's the deal? When will you get your designer baby with wings and mutant powers?

The answer is: not for a really, really long time. First of all, genetically-modifying a viable human embryo (which the one in the aforementioned experiment was not) is illegal in most countries. Second, we wouldn't know how to modify a human embryo to enhance its superpowers even if we wanted to. Sure we might be able to knock out a few genetic diseases given a few more years, or make it glow like those bunnies and kittens with the fluorescent fur.

A recent article in AP makes it clear exactly what this so-called 'designer embryo' really was:

"None of us wants to make designer babies," said Dr. Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

The idea of designer babies is that someday, scientists may insert particular genes into embryos to produce babies with desired traits like intelligence or athletic ability. Some people find that notion repugnant, saying it turns children into designed objects, and would create an unequal society where some people are genetically enriched while others would be considered inferior.

The study appears to be the first report of genetically modifying a human embryo. It was presented last fall at a meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, but didn't draw widespread public attention then. The result was reported over the weekend by The Sunday Times of London, which said British authorities highlighted the work in a recent report.

Rosenwaks and colleagues did the work with an embryo that had extra chromosomes, making it nonviable. Following a standard procedure used in animals, they inserted a gene that acts as a marker that can be easily followed over time. The embryo cells took up the gene, he said.

The goal was to see if a gene introduced into an abnormal embryo could be traced in stem cells that are harvested from the embryo, he said. Such work could help shed light on why abnormal embryos fail to develop, he said.

So quit your whining and learn some science, bitches. This isn't a designer baby. It's a stem cell experiment that will probably help cure one of your family members or friends one day. Image via Wellcome Trust.

Genetically-modified embryo stirs criticism [AP via PhysOrg]