Tag Archives: CRISPR

Designer Babies: The Genetic Saviors

Tell A Story – a column where riveting South Asian stories are presented like never before through unique video storytelling.

Genetic Engineering has always been a promising field of science right from its inception, but to advance to a level where babies can be designed before conceiving is definitely fascinating to note. 

Known as Designer Babies, their genetic makeup is pre-selected and altered to serve a purpose as needed. Using pre-screening and gene editing, many such babies have been created so far to save families. Conceived to save siblings from rare genetic disorders, they are also termed as savior siblings. 

It’s been 20 years since the first designer baby was born to the Nash family from Denver, Colorado, but the news is still a miracle to many. Adam Nash was conceived for his stem cells from the umbilical cord, which was later used for the life-saving treatment for his sister suffering from Fanconi’s Anemia. The controversial decision though saved his sister from the rare genetic disorder, it triggered an ethical battle and the family still continues to fight the backlash. 

Many questioned them for the motive of conception and few demanded explanation for challenging Darwin’s theory of evolution. Scientists continue to fear the consequences that may evolve in the future as the technology develops and gets adopted by the masses. 

The success of the first designer baby opened doors for many families that have a legacy of rare inherited genetic diseases. Since 2000, many countries have emulated the technology to save families. India had its first savior baby in 2018. Kavya Solanki conceived to save brother Abhijit from a rare blood disorder, thalassemia major. 

This powerful technology involving alteration of DNA sequences and modification of gene function is known as CRISPR technology. In-vitro fertilized embryos are genetically screened using preimplantation genetic diagnosis to find the one embryo that would be a potential bone match for their older siblings. Following this, the genetic makeup is selected or altered, often to include or remove a particular gene or genes associated with a disease that runs in the family. 

Though benefitted a few, scientists fear the rise of an elite class of genes created with illegal intentions. Gender diagnosis, trait preferences, the endless list of alarming consequences goes on; that may pose a major threat. Few scientific researchers have also raised concern over the health risks to human species with such creation of future generations. 

Tell-A-Story sheds light on this unique technology and its prospects while sharing the experiences of those families who have had designer babies, as they talk about the backlash, the need, and question of consent of the newborn. The video story also addresses the legal framework, future implications, and what lies ahead! 

Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.

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Entrepreneurs Should Use Tech for Humanity

Learn all you can from the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley but don’t become like them. This was my advice to a group of 91 students who are visiting here on a programme sponsored by Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. In a talk I gave this weekend, I encouraged them to take home the Valley’s optimism and culture of openness and information sharing — but not its greed and obsession with making money.

I also explained the advantage they have over the people they are meeting: an understanding of the true problems of humanity. This is what gives these students the ability to solve these.

Living here in California, surrounded by beautiful state parks, being close to mountains and the ocean, and having incredible comforts and luxuries, it is easy for entrepreneurs and investors to forget the realities of the world. People here cannot comprehend the hunger, misery, disease, and suffering faced by the majority of people on this planet. That is why the vast majority of the billions of dollars that are invested every year by venture capitalists go to silly apps and other equally meaningless, mindless projects.

Social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility are foreign concepts in Silicon Valley for the same reasons.

I told the budding entrepreneurs that they have opportunities that their parents could not even have imagined. They can literally build the Star Trek future that we have dreamed about, taking humanity from eons of scarcity to an era of abundance, to a world in which we worry more about sharing prosperity than fighting each other over what little we have. This period in human history is unique, because now entrepreneurs can do what only governments and big companies could do before.

With the advances in computers, which keep getting faster and smaller, the smartphones we carry in our pockets are many times more powerful than the Cray supercomputers of the 70s and 80s were. Those were only for scientific research and defence—and cost in the tens of millions of dollars. Our phones also have advanced sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes, more accurate than those in old nuclear missiles, and cameras with higher resolution than what spy satellites had.

Artificial Intelligence has advanced to the point that it can analyse large amounts of data and help improve decision-making in every sector from agriculture to finance to transportation. The same tools used by engineers at Google and Microsoft—and government research labs—are available to startups everywhere. These can be downloaded for free on the web and mastered by watching YouTube videos.

Robots are already beginning to do the jobs of humans in manufacturing plants, in grocery stores, in pharmacies, driving cars, and making deliveries. The humanoids of science fiction are also becoming a reality. The actuators and sensors necessary to build robots that resemble Rosie from the TV series The Jetsons or C-3PO from Star Wars are commonly available and inexpensive. AI will soon take a few more leaps forward and provide these the capability of acting intelligently—just like what we imagined.

There is no reason that Rosie, or Ritu the Robot, can’t originate from Jaipur—and speak Hindi or Marwari.

Using CRISPR, a new gene-editing system derived from bacteria that enables scientists to edit the DNA of living organisms, it is becoming possible to eradicate hereditary diseases, revive extinct species such as the woolly mammoth, and design plants that are far more nutritious, hardy and delicious than what we have now. Imagine banana and mango plants that thrive in the desert of Rajasthan. These may, one day, be a reality. This is all terrifying and amazing at the same time and relatively inexpensive to do by anyone, anywhere, using the tools.

These are just a few examples of what new technologies are enabling. In the next decade, we will also be 3D printing household goods, entire buildings, electronic circuits, and even our food. We will be designing new organisms that improve agriculture and clean up the environment. We will be delivering our goods—and perhaps be transporting ourselves—by drone. We can also build futuristic cities, which use only renewable energies, are clean and self-sustaining, and provide incredible comforts.

Amazing and good things really are possible. Yet, the same technologies can create dystopia, with large-scale destruction, spying, pandemics, and other unimaginable horrors. Many social and ethical dilemmas lie ahead.

You can be sure that governments and investors are funding the most profitable and malicious uses of technologies. That is why it is so important to teach India’s entrepreneurs about the advances and to inspire, motivate, and support their efforts. They will surely put technologies to their best uses and do this out of concern for humanity rather than just an intention to make profits.

This Article is republished with permission from the Author