As technology advances and starts to push the idea of designer babies from the realm of science fiction into reality, concern is rising around the murky ethics involved. Scientists and government bodies have started laying out guidelines around human enhancement and germline editing.
But besides these extreme scenarios, where embryos could be tweaked using genetic engineering tools like CRISPR, there are similar technologies already being used—and their ethical implications are no less complex, particularly given their accessibility. A recent study found that a substantial portion of Americans would be interested in using genetics tech to make their babies smarter.
The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and published yesterday in Science. The team asked survey respondents who may conceive using in vitro fertilization (IVF) how likely they were to use polygenic screening or CRISPR-style gene editing to increase their kids’ chances of getting into a top-100 ranked college.
The researchers told respondents that for purposes of the study they should assume the screening and editing options would be both free and safe. Neither of these assumptions are reality; the technologies haven’t been proven to be fully safe (particularly using CRISPR on embryos), and they’re certainly not free. Since a high cost and unproven safety would both substantially detract from peoples’ openness to the tech, though, simply gauging their attitudes was simplified by operating under these assumptions.
Of the respondents, 28 percent said they were more likely than not to use gene editing to make their babies smarter, and 38 percent said they’d use polygenic screening. The researchers also noted what they called a bandwagon effect, where people who were told something along the lines of “everyone else is doing it” were more likely to say they’d do it too. This is logical; our comfort with decisions is buoyed by a sense that others in our shoes would choose similarly.
It’s important to note, though, that the survey made it clear that genetically enhancing embryos didn’t come with a guaranteed result of a smarter kid. “In this study, we stipulated a realistic effect—that each service would increase the odds of having a child who attends a top-100 college by 2 percentage points, from 3 percent to 5 percent odds—and lots of people are still interested,” said Michelle N. Meyer, chair of the Department of Bioethics and Decision Sciences at Geisinger and first author of the article.
The numbers—28 and 38 percent—don’t seem high. That’s a little below and a little above one-third of total respondents who would use the technologies. But imagine walking around in a world where one out of every three people had had their genes tweaked before birth. Unsettling, no? The researchers said their results point to substantial and growing interest in genetic technologies for offspring enhancement, and that now is the time to get a national conversation going around regulations.
They emphasized the danger of relying on polygenic embryo screening as a trait-prediction tool. Polygenic risk scores are based on your genes and can give you an estimate of your and your kids’ risk for diseases like diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or schizophrenia. Analyzing an embryo’s genes can give some indication of their risk for these conditions, and companies are already offering polygenic screening to people trying to conceive through IVF. If multiple embryos are screened, would-be parents can choose to implant the one with the best scores.
It’s already gone a couple steps beyond screening for optimal health outcomes, though—people have provided their embryos’ genomic data to services that use it to make predictions about non-medical traits. It’s not only a slippery slope, but there’s not enough evidence showing clear links between these predictions and real-life outcomes.
“Polygenic indexes are already only weak predictors for most individual adult outcomes, especially for social and behavioral traits, and there are several factors that lower their predictive power even more in the context of embryo selection,” said senior author Patrick Turley, assistant research professor of economics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
The team noted the importance of a person’s environment in their gene expression—epigenetics—as well as the disparities that exist between the data available for people of European ancestry versus those of other heritage.
Economic disparities should be kept in mind too; since these technologies are far from free, the wealthy would have exclusive access to them, further widening gaps in equality that have already brought negative impacts on society.
Everyone wants to give their child the best possible chance at a healthy, happy life. Now that gene editing and polygenic screening are already “out of the box,” so to speak, they’re not going back in. But as this study emphasizes, they should be carefully studied, considered, and regulated sooner rather than later.