Comfortably seated in the fertility clinic with Vivaldi playing softly in the background, you and your partner are brought coffee and a folder. Inside the folder is an embryo menu. There are 200 of these embryos to choose from, all made by in vitro fertilisation (IVF) from you and your partner’s eggs and sperm. So, over to you. Which will you choose?
If there’s any kind of future for “designer babies”, it might look something like this. It’s a long way from the image conjured up when artificial conception, and perhaps even artificial gestation, were first mooted as a serious scientific possibility. Inspired by predictions about the future of reproductive technology by the biologists JBS Haldane and Julian Huxley in the 1920s, Huxley’s brother Aldous wrote a satirical novel about it.
Every new advance puts a fresh spark of life into Huxley’s monstrous vision. Ishiguro’s dire forecast was spurred by the gene-editing method called Crispr-Cas9, developed in 2012, which uses natural enzymes to target and snip genes with pinpoint accuracy. Thanks to Crispr-Cas9, it seems likely that gene therapies – eliminating mutant genes that cause some severe, mostly very rare diseases – might finally bear fruit, if they can be shown to be safe for human use. Clinical trials are now under way.
But modified babies? Crispr-Cas9 has already been used to genetically modify (nonviable) human embryos in China, to see if it is possible in principle – the results were mixed. And Kathy Niakan of the Francis Crick Institute in the UK has been granted a licence by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use Crispr-Cas9 on embryos a few days old to find out more about problems in these early stages of development that can lead to miscarriage and other reproductive problems.