This week on The Digital Life we discuss the recent announcement that the world’s first baby was born from new procedure using DNA of three people. Dr. John Zhang, from the New Hope Fertility Center in New York, led the team that attempted the mitochondrial transfer procedure. The procedure replaces faulty DNA in a mother’s egg with healthy DNA from a second woman — the baby inherits genes from two mothers and one father. This prevents certain, potentially fatal genetic diseases from being passed on to the child. The United Kingdom was the first country to legalize mitochondrial transfer in 2015, but, no other country has followed with a similar law. The procedure was conducted in Mexico where there are no rules in place for this kind of activity, with a team from the US. While this technique does not specifically impact the concerns about “designer babies”, it’s clear that the genomic technology is advancing far more quickly than governments are able to deal with it.
Jon: Welcome to Episode 176 of The Digital Life, the show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings, listeners.
Jon: For the podcast this week, we’ll discuss the recent announcement that the world’s first baby was born from a new procedure using the DNA of 3 people, so this is a baby with not 1, not 2, but 3 parents.
Dirk: Puts a new spin on ménage a trois, hey, Jon?
Jon: Yes, for sure. I’m not sure that that’s what the French were thinking of when they coined that. Dr. Jon Zhang from the New Hope Fertility Clinic in New York led the team that attempted and succeeded with this mitochondrial transfer procedure. It basically replaced faulty DNA in the mother’s egg with healthy DNA from a second woman, and so the baby goes on to inherit genes from 2 mothers and one father. This procedure prevents certain diseases which can be debilitating and even fatal, specifically mitochondrial-related genetic diseases from being passed on to the children.
There are a few children each year who are born with these faults in their mitochondrial DNA, which can cause all sorts of problems. This type of procedure is legalized in the United Kingdom, but there is no other laws on the books that expressly enable this type of procedure to happen in other countries. The team that completed the procedure was U.S.-based, but they did all the work in Mexico, which didn’t have any particular rules in place, and, therefore, I think that raised a few eyebrows in the scientific community.
First, let’s just get general impressions and then we’ll dig into some of the pretty large ethical and scientific issues that this raises. It doesn’t completely compose all of these potential problems into one thing, but it certainly raises the issue. Let’s start with general impressions, Dirk.
Dirk: Yeah. To me, it’s superficially more significant than it is in reality. What I mean by that is I think for a long time we’ve taken an egg from a different woman and planted a sperm from a father and put it in the wife of the father as the host mother for an egg that she didn’t produce, or were taking sperm from another man, putting it into an egg of the mother from someone other than her husband. Of course, marriage is not a prequisite for any of these things. Now, it’s taking essentially the egg and taking part of it out from a genetic perspective and replacing it with something else.
It seems newer, scarier maybe, but it’s really not that different. It’s really making a decision based on the viability of the biological material of one of the parents and making an alteration for the viability or the health of a baby. In and of itself it’s doing it at the genetic level as opposed to the sort of substitution of an egg or a sperm cell, which makes it different, but it’s pretty similar from an outcome perspective. Where this becomes more compelling is the slippery slope problem, because it’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh, yeah, you know, we don’t want to have this child born with this congenital problem. We want it to be born healthy.”
Most people are going to nod their heads with that and say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” making that replacement okay, but the path isn’t that long to the superman, the supermensch model, where you’re not replacing to avoid some disease or some condition. You’re replacing to enhance. You’re replacing to go and not just get healthy, but to healthy superstar. Right? I think that’s where it becomes more interesting. Certainly, this technology is on a path to allow that to happen, even though in the sort of concrete sense that we imagine it probably not able to happen today.
Jon: Yeah. I tend to agree with the things you were just saying. The designer baby is sort of the term given to the scenario of the uber mensch or people who are, at least if they’re not superhuman, then they’ve been given selected traits. I think that’s a question that makes a lot of people nervous, and for a good reason.
Dirk: What’s the good reason? When you said it makes people nervous for good reason, explain that more. I’m interested in your ethical take on that.
Jon: Sure. Yeah. Of course, one of the reasons is obviously creating a certain type of person that might receive societal approval. You can think about certain traits that are more pleasurable to look at or are more likely to fit into some societal mold. I think that’s probably where most of the concerns come from. Secondly, there is a huge question that comes along with sort of the affordability or accessibility of these options.
If you’re able to change your DNA to make you more competitive, smarter, faster, better, but that’s only accessible to the ultra elite, then it raises the question that I believe there is maybe with the time machine where H. G. Wells had the fantasy of 2 human strains that develop totally differently, one that lived underground and one that lived above ground, sort of drastically transferring this societal framework and making it something that changed the direction of humanity.
I think ethically those are the things that jump out to me. I’m sure there are all sorts of gradations of that, and some of that seems a little bit far-fetched. I don’t know, Dirk. What’s your thoughts on that?
Dirk: I definitely understand your framing on it, and I understand where it comes from. I wonder if it’s sort of a red herring, though. What I mean by that is we were having a conversation, myself and a couple of other people in the studio, all of us. We were having a conversation about Trump’s tax return, the four of us, and the fact that if you look at over all of human history, there’s always been an elite. Always is too absolute, but by and large, in civilization there’s haves and there’s have-nots.
That’s been the case whether it’s been a democracy, whether it’s been a hereditary monarchy, whether it’s been communism. Regardless of the social structure, there is a small group that has a vast majority of the wealth and power that tends to propagate generation over generation over generation, whether it be because it’s supposedly by divine right or whether it’s because you just have a shit ton of money that you keep passing down to the following generations.
To me, if we’re concerned about it being only elite are going to use this and their children are going to be more powerful, more successful, more set up, it’s already the case. It’s just manifesting in different ways. Now, it’s just they have the millions of dollars that they pass down, which gives the children ginormous advantages that sets them up to more likely to be in charge. This is just a different flavor of that.
Not that that is necessarily to advocate for or excuse it, but I don’t know that it’s such a different state of affairs than we already have in the world. The fact is, there is a power elite in virtually every organized manifestation of civilization as far back as recorded history goes, and that power elite generally tends to stay in place generation over generation. One of the things that’s remarkable about the experience in the United States of America, where we are, is that unlike the European countries, where many of us came from originally, it’s much easier to go from having nothing to make it for yourself and to get into that elite at one level or another.
The question is, would this make it harder? Would the sort of promise of America of, “I have nothing, but I’m going to work hard and be ingenious and make something for myself that starts to move me into a place of power and could move my family into a place of power,” do the hurdles of designer babies and technology create a system that is less penetrable by the lower classes? I think it may, but I think there’s a lot of unknowns, too, so I’m not sure.
Jon: Yeah. Yeah, that’s an interesting breakdown, relating that to our current societal structures. Another question that this raised for me really was about governmental involvement in sort of regulating these technologies and the idea that there would be some kind of guiding principles that we might come to as a country that got codified in that way. Now very specifically, the United Kingdom has allowed this technology via their legal system, and we haven’t gotten around to it yet in the United States, and because of that, the operating team on this decided that they were going to go to Mexico, which presumably has looser regulations around this, doesn’t necessarily have an FDA.
Dirk: There’s no presumption about it. They do have significantly looser.
Jon: Right. I think that also raises a question about the advance of technology and how that’s handled from an international standpoint, both for sort of making sure that the technological outcomes are not as risky or at least done in a controlled way. I think this is true not just of genomic-related emerging technologies, but a number of other technologies that we see coming, whether it be synthetic biology or even robotics.
I don’t know that there is a clear answer about how government should approach getting involved in this discussion, but I think there needs to be a greater sense of urgency, in particular on the biotech side, and I’m just lumping all this together under biological-type technologies. My feeling is that over the past 18 months, we’ve seen an extraordinary number of advances and news headlines, some maybe just for effect, but certainly the technology is starting to run at a full sprint. I feel like regulation or at least discussion in that area is at best at a walk and nowhere near approaching what we need.
Dirk: Yeah. Look, business is always way, way ahead of legislation on this stuff. There’s no question about it. Way ahead. The government’s going to be really slow to catch up. Something I was thinking about as I was reflecting on what we talked about previously as well as some of the things you were just saying, is I don’t know that this technology is all that different from things that we take for granted now. What I mean by that is the wealthy now take their children and put them in private schools. They take them and put them in schools that are demonstrably better than the public schools that everyone else is in.
What is more impactful on the outcome of a child as they’re advancing? Is it more impactful that they get the super smart genes, or is it more impactful that they get the private schooling? I think it’s well within the realm of possibility that the environmental and network benefits of the existing old-school infrastructure that the money buys actually is the thing that should be more intimidating and frightening to the have-nots in terms of the advantages that the children are getting.
It’s just that the designer baby aspect of it is the sort of sci-fi. It’s not here yet. It’s a little bit scary. It’s easier to feel fear toward … I suspect that the very analog, very old-school advantages that the money of the power elite provide are really putting in harder-to-overcome obstacles for the rest of us ultimately, at least certainly in the short term until that technology is super-perfected and is creating more holistic uber people.
Jon: Right. I think perhaps part of the point is this is another technology that money can buy. Right?
Jon: You have the technologies that are resident in the frameworks that you describe, whether they be private schools or certain ways of investing or having a whole bunch of lawyers and accountants to manufacture your tax returns so that it doesn’t look like you owe any money for years and years. Those are all technologies of a kind, accounting and math, early technologies. Right?
Jon: School systems as well. It’s not surprising that advance technology such as this could also be lumped into being advantageous for the elite. I guess the question always is, when a new technology comes along, who does it benefit? What is it for? At least in the United States, there’s this egalitarian outlook that these things should be accessible to everybody, when, in fact, they are not. Those are some of the issues that we’ll struggle with as these technologies come to market, especially the genomic ones. I think we’re just at the very beginning of that.
Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com … that’s just one “l” in thedigitalife … and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and, of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com.
Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for Episode 176, The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.