When I first read that genetically modified humans have already been born, I could hardly believe it. However, further research into this story featured in the UK’s Daily Mail1 proved it to be true. They’ve really done it… they’ve created humans that nature could never allow for, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen next.
Even more shocking was the discovery that this is actually old news!
The Daily Mail article was not dated, and upon investigation, the experiments cited actually took place over a decade ago; the study announcing their successful birth was published in 20012.
While I typically comment on recent findings and health related news, in this case I will make an exception, because I think many of you may be as surprised by this information as I was. I do not propose to have any answers here as this is out of my scope of expertise.
At best, I hope I can stir you to ponder the implications of this type of genetic engineering, and I invite you to share your perspective in the vital votes’ comment section below. As reported in the featured article:
“The disclosure that 30 healthy babies were born after a series of experiments in the United States provoked another furious debate about ethics… Fifteen of the children were born… as a result of one experimental program at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas in New Jersey.
The babies were born to women who had problems conceiving. Extra genes from a female donor were inserted into their eggs before they were fertilized in an attempt to enable them to conceive.
Genetic fingerprint tests on two one-year- old children confirm that they have inherited DNA from three adults—two women and one man.”
Human Germline Now Altered… What Happens Next?
Today, these children are in their early teens, and while the original study claims that this was “the first case of human germline genetic modification resulting in normal healthy children,” later reports put such claims of absolute success in dispute. Still, back in 2001, the authors seemed to think they had it all under control, stating:
“These are the first reported cases of germline mtDNA genetic modification which have led to the inheritance of two mtDNA populations in the children resulting from ooplasmic transplantation. These mtDNA fingerprints demonstrate that the transferred mitochondria can be replicated and maintained in the offspring, therefore being a genetic modification without potentially altering mitochondrial function.”
It’s relevant to understand that these children have inherited extra genes—that of TWO women and one man—and will be able to pass this extra set of genetic traits to their own offspring. One of the most shocking considerations here is that this was done—repeatedly—even though no one knows what the ramifications of having the genetic traits of three parents might be for the individual, or for their subsequent offspring.
Based on what I’ve learned about the genetic engineering of plants, I’m inclined to say the ramifications could potentially be vast, dire, and completely unexpected.
As a general, broad-strokes rule, it seems few scientists fond of gene-tinkering have a well-rounded or holistic view of living organisms, opting instead to view the human body as a machine. And as demonstrated with the multi-varied problems that have arisen from genetically engineered foods—from the development of superweeds and superpests, to the creation of a never-before-seen organism now linked to miscarriage and infertility—such a view is bound to lead you to the wrong conclusions…
Surprise, Surprise… “Unpredictable Outcomes” Reported
As it turns out, this type of genetic modification, called cytoplasmic transfer, is actually a hot topic among geneticists, but it’s rarely published or discussed in the lay press, if at all—as evidenced by my own surprise when reading this decade-old piece of news.
Many follow-up reports continue to tout the high success of this method of treating infertility. But some, including a book put out by Cambridge Press, warns of the dangers and risks of this procedure. For example, the following excerpts from a report3 delivered during the 2003 World Congress on Controversies in Obstetrics, Gynecology & Infertility in Berlin raises questions about the less than thoughtful implementation of this technology, and some of the problems encountered:
“… Cytoplasmic control of preimplantation development is not a “new” concept, but ooplasm transfer have been amazingly rapidly applied in humans, with relative success, in the absence of extensive research to evaluate the efficacy and the potential risks of the method, resulting in some publications highlighting the potential dangers (Winston and Hardy 2002, DeRycke et al 2002, Templeton 2002), and unpredictable outcomes (Cummins 2001, 2002).
… A frank follow-up of ooplasmic transplantation pregnancies and infants reports that two out of 17 fetuses had an abnormal 45, XO karyotype. The authors assume thehypothesis of a link between chromosomal anomalies and oocytes manipulation, and reveal that one of the babies has been diagnosed at 18 months with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, a spectrum of autism-related diagnoses.” [Emphasis mine]
So it didn’t take long—less than two years, in fact—for reports of “unpredictable outcomes” to crop up. I for one am not surprised. It’s somewhat disconcerting that so much of this research is taking place without open discussion about the ethical questions associated with it.
The US FDA appears to have begun looking at the ethics of ooplasmic transplantation, and in one powerpoint4 it is pointed out that an 18-month-old child born from this procedure has been diagnosed with autism (PDD), and that the incidence of chromosomal anomalies is known to be higher in children born from the procedure than the rate of major congenital abnormalities observed in the natural population.
The document also states that lack of testing and long-term follow-up of the children born from the procedure so far is a significant shortcoming, making evaluation of the safety and effectiveness of the technique very difficult. The genetic modification of humans appears to have been running alongside the genetic engineering of plants, being just a few years behind in terms of the technology being unleashed, and the lack of proper evaluation of health effects is apparently on par as well, which is to say near non-existent…
Could They Create Patentable Humans? Perhaps…
Another horrific side effect that has nothing to do with health per se, is the potential that making this procedure widely available may trigger a “patent” war; meaning these genetically modified humans could become patentable property.
You bet! But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. The world is already embroiled in discussions about which genetically engineered life forms can and cannot be patented5, and biotech companies have secured patents on everything from genetically modified seeds to engineered animals of various kinds. Even human genes have already been patented!
As explained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)6:
“The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) grants patents on human genes, which means that the patent holders own the exclusive rights to those genetic sequences, their usage, and their chemical composition. Anyone who makes or uses a patented gene without permission of the patent holder – whether it be for commercial or noncommercial purposes – is committing patent infringement and can be sued by the patent holder for such infringement. Gene patents, like other patents, are granted for 20 years.
For example, Myriad Genetics, a private biotechnology company based in Utah, controls patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes [two genes associated with hereditary breast- and ovarian cancer]. Because of its patents, Myriad has the right to prevent anyone else from testing, studying, or even looking at these genes. It also holds the exclusive rights to any mutations along those genes. No one is allowed to do anything with the BRCA genes without Myriad’s permission.
A 2005 study found that 4,382 of the 23,688 human genes in the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s gene database are explicitly claimed as intellectual property. This means that nearly 20% of human genes are patented. In addition to the BRCA genes, genes associated with numerous diseases, both common and rare, are patented, including Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, some forms of colon cancer, Canavan disease, hemochromatosis, some forms of muscular dystrophy, Long QT Syndrome, and many others.”
If this sounds outrageous, illegal, and nonsensical, it’s because it’s all of those things. The ACLU claims to be engaged in a noble lawsuit against the US Patent and Trademark Office to stop the practice of issuing patents that are contrary to the law, which states only inventions can be patented—not naturally occurring parts of the human body. Still, the precedent has been clearly set. So what’s to stop a company from eventually claiming patent rights on an entire individual?
Human Cloning Next?
According to the featured article7, “altering the human germline—in effect tinkering with the very make-up of our species—is a technique shunned by the vast majority of the world’s scientists. Geneticists fear that one day this method could be used to create new races of humans with extra, desired characteristics such as strength or high intelligence.”
But that’s clearly not the end of the line in terms of where this technology might lead, if it hasn’t already:
“… Jacques Cohen is regarded as a brilliant but controversial scientist who has pushed the boundaries of assisted reproduction technologies,” Mail Online states8. “He developed a technique which allows infertile men to have their own children, by injecting sperm DNA straight into the egg in the lab. Prior to this, only infertile women were able to conceive using IVF.
Last year , Professor Cohen said that his expertise would allow him to clone children—a prospect treated with horror by the mainstream scientific community. ‘It would be an afternoon’s work for one of my students,’ he said, adding that he had been approached by ‘at least three’ individuals wishing to create a cloned child, but had turned down their requests.”
That was then—12 years ago. One can only guess what might have transpired in laboratories such as that of Professor Cohen since then…
Filed under: Science & Technology