Genetics: Within 30 years, scientists may be tinkering with genes of
sperm and eggs to produce 'modified' people with enhanced traits, says expert.
A DISTURBING description of a brave new world filled with designer babies created by scientists with a
mission to control human evolution was painted yesterday by on of the leaders of the effort to decode the
Francis Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, believes that within 30 years
there will be pressure on scientists to tinker with the genes of sperm and eggs to create genetically
modified human embryos with enhanced traits.
"I find this interesting but somewhat chilling," Dr Collins told the World Life Sciences Forum in Lyons,
France. "It implies someone knows what an improvement is and it also implies we could be sure enough about
the safety issues to contemplate altering our very biology."
At present, only gene therapy is allowed on "somatic" non-reproductive tissue and Dr Collins supports the
existing moratorium on so-called "germline" gene therapy on eggs, sperm and embryos because of safety
"Perhaps in 20 years we may have learnt how to practise gene therapy in the germline that is safe. Right
now we don't know how to do that. But if we were successful in another 20 years it will be contemplated
in a more serious way," he said.
"I wouldn't be surprised that if in 30 years of being successful in this business of how to manipulate
the germline, some people will start to argue, as Stephen Hawking already has, that we ought to take
charge of our own evolution and we should not be satisfied with our biological status and should as a
species try to improve ourselves."
Genetic enhancement cannot be done safely and predictably at present. Dr Collins said: "The well-heeled
couple who decided to do this today to have a child who is going to be a wonderful musician and an artist
may find instead that the child grows into a sullen adolescent who smokes marijuana and doesn't talk to
But with the full sequence of the human genome expected to be finished within two years, a new era of
genetic understanding has begun. "If all goes well, then perhaps the average life span will be extended
to something like 90 years which will put great stress on our social and economic system," Dr Collins said.
"By 2010 we would have uncovered the hereditary contributions to most of the common diseases that are
frequent in our society and we will have genetic tests for at least a dozen of those."
Also within the next 10 years, a technique which is called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, when genes
are tested in an early IVF embryo before the embryo is put into the womb, will be widespread for a range
of genetic disorders. "Pre-implantation diagnosis will undoubtedly be practised in more centres and what
conditions this will be applied for will be fiercely debated over the coming years," Dr Collins said.
To counter the possibility of a genetic underclass being created as a result of testing for defective
genes, Dr Collins called for effective legislation to prevent genetic discrimination. "(It) should be in
place in 10 years and I hope we won't have to wait nearly that long," he said.
By 2020, Dr Collins said, the common practice will be for patients to undergo a battery of genetic tests
before they are prescribed tailor-made drugs to suit their individual make-up.
"We are certainly close to understanding the hereditary contributions to manic depressive illness,
to schizophrenia, and to obsessive compulsive disorder in a way that should at least lead to a better
biological understandingof mental disorders," Dr Collins said. "In 2030, if all goes well, we should
have achieved a cornprehensive, genomics-based healthcare with individualised medicine instead of the
Source: The Independent of Feb. 9, 2001
1. Describe the progress of genetic research as delineated in the article.
2. What are the main concerns when research takes full advantage of genetic engineering?