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What Are Designer Babies? Know About The Technology That Makes 'Smarter', 'Taller' Kids

Just like the term suggests, the designer baby is a baby 'designed' in a lab according to the specific requirements of the parents. Scientifically, a designer baby is termed as a baby whose genetic makeup has been selected or altered to include a specific gene type or remove the genes that are associated with diseases [1].

As bizarre as it may sound, designer babies are given special traits through genetic engineering and sort of having a 'predetermined future.' The social and emotional need to have a 'perfect child' can be viewed as one of the primary motivating factors behind the unethical trend, which initially were developed with the intention of creating a future where one can be born without the risks of diseases [2][3].

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How Are Designer Babies ‘Made’?

Designer babies are made by altering the genes of the egg, sperm, or the embryo. And these traits (the ones that can be modified/altered) can vary from lower resistance to diseases to even gender selection, and this process is termed as gene editing.

What Is Gene Editing?

Also known as genome editing, gene editing involves insertion, deletion, or replacement of DNAs at specific sites in the genome of an organism. It is mostly done using engineered nucleases (molecular scissors). With gene editing, scientists can correct harmful mutations, disable target genes and alter the activity of specific genes [4].

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How Does Gene (Genome) Editing Work?

Although there are different ways of editing genes, the one that showed the maximum potential and made a breakthrough is a molecular tool known as Crispr-Cas9 (Crispr: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, Cas: CRISPR-associated) [5].

To mend faulty genes, scientists remove the mutated DNA and replace it with a healthy strand. This is injected simultaneously along with the Crispr-Cas9 molecules.

How Does Gene Editing Ensure The ‘Perfect Baby'?

As the gene-editing molecules are quite big, they do find it difficult to get into the cells. The ideal way of making this possible is by packing the gene-editing molecules into viruses that are harmless but are designed to infect particular kinds of cell. Millions of these are injected directly into the person's affected tissue or in some cases into the bloodstream [6]. The virus invades the target cells and releases the gene-editing molecules which then starts doing its work [7].

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When And Where Was World’s First Designer Baby Born?

The world's first gene-edited or designer babies were reportedly born in China in 2018, where a scientist He Jiankui, claimed in a video he posted online that he had used CRISPR-Cas9 to delete a gene in human embryos in order to make the babies resistant to HIV [8][9].

It was mentioned by the scientist that those embryos have developed into two healthy babies, a set of twins. However, the claim was never verified, and the hospital named in He's ethical-approval documents has denied any involvement in the procedure.

How Does Gene Editing Impact The ‘Need' For Designer Babies?

Several studies have given the opinion that it would not be long before gene editing goes much beyond mending faulty genes in children and adults [10]. This concept has given rise to the feeling of having engineered babies in the near future.

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Also, speculations exist where many believe that there would come a time where designer babies would be created to address social aspects rather than medical, such as the need to make a person taller or more intelligent.

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Can Gene Editing Help With Genetic Disorders In Embryos For ‘Designer Babies’?

Gene editing gained a lot of attention when its potential to prevent and treat human diseases was announced by researchers [11]. It is known that there are several genetic disorders that tend to pass on from one generation to the next. These genetic disorders are most of the time quite serious, weakening, and life-threatening as well. Going by statistics, one in every 25 children is born with a genetic disorder/disease. The most commonly occurring genetic diseases are muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anaemia.

Gene editing has already proven to be a success in case of modifying people's immune cells in order to fight cancer. It has also shown great results in modifying cells such that there is a development of resistance towards HIV infection. Researchers are acting quickly on finding ways to fix defective genes in human embryos so that babies born do not possess inherited serious illnesses [12].

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Are Designer Babies Going To Be The Future Of Mankind?

Besides the ethical dilemmas, the idea of selecting ‘optimal' embryos based on their genes has one key flaw and that is no one knows if it would actually work, and many scientists argue that the science just isn't there yet.

However, the topic on designer babies has opened the gates for quite a lot of controversy, especially because the genetic changes affect the sperm or the egg cells and in such cases of genetic edits, a bad or incorrect move could result in a side effect being passed on to future generations. That is, a designer baby's IQ could end up being much lower or much higher than what is expected [13][14].

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On A Final Note…

Designer babies are a thing of the future that is quite a distant dream now, especially considering the rounds of clinical trials and approvals that it would have to go through to be out in the open.

And in the case of gene editing, it is slowly gaining popularity and will be used in the modern-day medical treatment soon to address almost all forms of genetic disorders. With the ample benefits of gene editing, mankind will surely benefit if it is used in the right way and in the right direction.