January, 2035: The First Designer Baby Brought To Life
I write short science fiction stories to raise awareness about the massive ethical issues we will have to face when disruptive technologies show their full potential. This way, people can get scared, excited or just initiate discussions about how to prepare for the coming changes in health, disease and life.
Waiting to disconnect Lydia from the artificial womb
The birth of a baby is always one of the greatest events in the parents’ life. But the 21st of January was also a big day in the Digital Healthcare Facility in London, UK. Lydia, the first so-called „designer baby” was brought to life. Unbearable amount of press workers appeared on the hospital premises, almost squeezing out the medical staff. At some point, the DHF’s director issued a statement demanding representatives of the press to leave the building and gather in the newly installed press tent.
The medical staff was also excited. Dr. Lee, the leader of the team responsible for editing the fetus’s genome with the CRISPR method, as well as Dr. Brice, who supervised the artificial womb, were visibly nervous. They looked at their phones in every 2 seconds waiting for the signal to disconnect Lydia from the artificial womb – the late 21st century version of a baby’s birth.
Baby design + genome polishing
There was a long way up until this moment. First of all, the “appropriate” parents had to be chosen for the first “designer baby”. Klara and Jonas Peterson proved to be good matches: in some respects, they had their clear ideas about their future child (blue eyes, blond hair, intelligent, social, kind and musically talented), they wanted to cut out certain genetic conditions and risks (color blindness, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain types of cancer) and they were open to try the brand-new, risky process.
Obviously, designer babies are not conceived the way people have been making babies for thousands of years. Instead, Lydia was designed in silico, in a software. Klara and Jonas went through many exams, had their genome sequenced, and their whole family tree was charted in order to be able to exclude all major medical conditions running in both of their families from the future child’s genome. It was unambiguous that all major medical conditions have to be omitted from the DNA.
Compared to this, the next phase gave a lot of tasks to the wannabe parents. They had to choose which ones of their major characteristics the child should inherit from eye, hair and skin color to psychological traits and muscular structure. Luckily, the extended family and friends came in handy. Klara and Jonas created various online polls to figure out what traits their family members and friends did not like about them, so they knew which ones to avoid.
The designing process took about a month – half of that time spent with all the huge online and offline family discussions about the future child’s characteristics. Then the baby was made in a Petri dish using the routine CRISPR genome editing technology under the leadership of Dr. Lee. Researchers used cells from the mother and sperm from the father to create many zygotes. From those, medical professionals chose the most viable ones with the genome that resembled the most what they wished for. Then edited the remaining parts to match their needs.
What gender should the child have?
For Klara and Jonas, the most difficult topic proved to be the gender of their future child. Klara wanted to have a baby girl, while Jonas leaned towards boys, since he imagined he could play with him the trumpet, when he is going to be older. They argued about it for weeks. Luckily, baby design has a solution for this problem as well. The medical team gave them an ultimatum to decide the gender up until the 7th month of the pregnancy.
Before that, they could choose a yet non-existing gender, plurigender, since they did not want to impose any gender role on the fetus so early. (wink wink) When after a heated debate, consensus was reached – let’s have a baby girl! -, the healthcare facility made the transformation through ultra-rapid hormonal therapy. Dr. Lee told me it is the clear benefit to have a plurigender baby, as parents have a few months to decide about the gender of their offspring. In the case of Klara and Jonas, they explained me it was astounding how fast they found the baby’s name after they figured out what gender they would like their first-born to have. Lydia was the maiden name of one of Klara’s grandmas.
Artificial liver transplant to prevent future conditions
After the genome was polished and ready for bringing Lydia to life, it was put in an artificial womb system supervised by Dr. Brice. The synthetic environment patented in the late 2020s can mimic the conditions in a woman’s womb. He told me that the greatest advantage of the artificial extra-uterine environment is that physicians are able to monitor the baby’s progress without probing the mother with many tests and examinations.
After various tests and exams, the doctors decided to replace the child’s liver with a bionic, 3D printed liver because of the massive trait of liver cancer in the extended family. As no genetic components seemed to be playing a role in increasing the risk, they decided to minimize the chance and replace it with a fully functional artificial liver. Dr. Brione, who led the liver transplant project told me that it was a rational decision from the parents’ side.
Finally, the time has come
And then, after exactly 9 months, the medical staff was waiting for the signal to safely disconnect the baby from the artificial placenta. At around 14.50, all the physicians jumped up from their seats in awe, as the anticipated signal arrived. Lydia was brought to life. As usual, cameras and phones heavily documented the event, and the first pictures reached social media. It was not the first public performance of the not-yet-born: her Facebook page was already very popular and almost every moment of her life is streamed online because of the massive attention. Klara and Jonas were unspeakably happy, the press documented every second, while Lydia, an entirely regular child at first sight was looking around in the hospital room unartful.
Humanity faces a huge opportunity. Babies will be brought to life without the risk of getting a disease later in their lives as many of their parents and grandparents did. They can be designed thus we can make sure that our species keeps on evolving and improving in order to change evolution.
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