March 16, 2010

Concern over 'designer baby' research should focus on standards

— A genetic experiment carried out recently in New York has received attention because critics fear it could be a step toward creating ''designer'' human embryos. But what's really concerning is where this experiment falls in terms of how much -- or, more accurately, how little -- it advances the science of genetic engineering.

Researchers at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center successfully transplanted a gene into a human embryo. The gene, which causes cells to glow, was spliced onto the DNA of an embryo that was not viable, having no chance to grow into a baby.

The experiment was intended to advance stem-cell research, which uses the cells that are the basic building blocks for human tissue in an attempt to cure genetically based diseases such as diabetes and Parkison's.

What has everyone's attention is the fact that the embryo did divide, carrying the florescence gene to each new cell. This proved that a trait can be inserted in a human embryo and then carried forward.

This has led to fears of ''designer'' babies that are given genes to enhance intelligence, athletic performance or other qualities. Critics point out that such technology would raise serious ethical issues.

But digging a little deeper into the story, one learns that the gene-splicing technique used in the experiment does not represent a huge breakthrough.

This illustrates well the fact that society is not going to avoid the ethical issues raised by genetic engineering by holding back technology. Restrictions such as the ban on federal funding for certain types of stem-cell research won't stop scientists from figuring out how to manipulate human genetics.

Rather than forestalling research, concerns about the ethics of genetic engineering should be addressed by developing a clear understanding within the scientific community of how this technology should and should not be applied.

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