English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TEDxVienna

Paul Knoepfler: The ethical dilemma of designer babies

Filmed
Views 1,110,167

Creating genetically modified people is no longer a science fiction fantasy; it's a likely future scenario. Biologist Paul Knoepfler estimates that within fifteen years, scientists could use the gene editing technology CRISPR to make certain "upgrades" to human embryos -- from altering physical appearances to eliminating the risk of auto-immune diseases. In this thought-provoking talk, Knoepfler readies us for the coming designer baby revolution and its very personal, and unforeseeable, consequences.

- Biologist
Paul Knoepfler is a biomedical scientist and writer focusing on stem cells and genetics. Full bio

So what if I could make for you
00:12
a designer baby?
00:15
What if you as a parent-to-be
00:18
and I as a scientist decided
to go down that road together?
00:20
What if we didn't?
00:26
What if we thought, "That's a bad idea,"
00:27
but many of our family,
friends and coworkers
00:30
did make that decision?
00:33
Let's fast-forward just 15 years from now.
00:36
Let's pretend it's the year 2030,
00:39
and you're a parent.
00:42
You have your daughter,
Marianne, next to you,
00:44
and in 2030, she is what we call a natural
00:48
because she has no genetic modifications.
00:51
And because you and your partner
consciously made that decision,
00:55
many in your social circle,
they kind of look down on you.
00:59
They think you're, like,
a Luddite or a technophobe.
01:02
Marianne's best friend Jenna,
who lives right next door,
01:07
is a very different story.
01:10
She was born a genetically modified
designer baby with numerous upgrades.
01:12
Yeah. Upgrades.
01:20
And these enhancements were introduced
01:22
using a new genetic
modification technology
01:25
that goes by the funny name CRISPR,
01:28
you know, like something's crisp,
01:31
this is CRISPR.
01:32
The scientist that Jenna's parents
hired to do this
01:35
for several million dollars
01:38
introduced CRISPR
into a whole panel of human embryos.
01:41
And then they used genetic testing,
01:46
and they predicted that
that little tiny embryo, Jenna's embryo,
01:48
would be the best of the bunch.
01:52
And now, Jenna is an actual, real person.
01:55
She's sitting on the carpet
in your living room
01:58
playing with your daughter Marianne.
02:01
And your families have known
each other for years now,
02:05
and it's become very clear to you
02:08
that Jenna is extraordinary.
02:10
She's incredibly intelligent.
02:13
If you're honest with yourself,
she's smarter than you,
02:15
and she's five years old.
02:18
She's beautiful, tall, athletic,
02:21
and the list goes on and on.
02:24
And in fact, there's
a whole new generation
02:28
of these GM kids like Jenna.
02:30
And so far it looks like
02:33
they're healthier
than their parents' generation,
02:36
than your generation.
02:38
And they have lower health care costs.
02:40
They're immune to a host
of health conditions,
02:44
including HIV/AIDS and genetic diseases.
02:46
It all sounds so great,
02:51
but you can't help but have
this sort of unsettling feeling,
02:53
a gut feeling, that there's something
just not quite right about Jenna,
02:56
and you've had the same feeling
about other GM kids that you've met.
03:02
You were also reading
in the newspaper earlier this week
03:07
that a study of these children
who were born as designer babies
03:10
indicates they may have some issues,
03:14
like increased aggressiveness
and narcissism.
03:16
But more immediately on your mind
03:21
is some news that you just got
from Jenna's family.
03:23
She's so smart,
03:27
she's now going to be going
to a special school,
03:28
a different school
than your daughter Marianne,
03:31
and this is kind of throwing
your family into a disarray.
03:34
Marianne's been crying,
03:37
and last night when you took her to bed
to kiss her goodnight,
03:39
she said, "Daddy, will Jenna
even be my friend anymore?"
03:42
So now, as I've been telling you
this imagined 2030 story,
03:48
I have a feeling
that I may have put some of you
03:52
into this sci-fi
frame of reference. Right?
03:54
You think you're reading a sci-fi book.
03:57
Or maybe, like,
in Halloween mode of thinking.
03:59
But this is really
a possible reality for us,
04:02
just 15 years from now.
04:05
I'm a stem cell and genetics researcher
04:07
and I can see this new CRISPR technology
04:10
and its potential impact.
04:13
And we may find ourselves in that reality,
04:15
and a lot will depend
on what we decide to do today.
04:19
And if you're still
kind of thinking in sci-fi mode,
04:23
consider that the world of science
had a huge shock earlier this year,
04:26
and the public largely
doesn't even know about it.
04:31
Researchers in China just a few months ago
04:33
reported the creation
of genetically modified human embryos.
04:36
This was the first time in history.
04:41
And they did it using
this new CRISPR technology.
04:44
It didn't work perfectly,
04:47
but I still think
they sort of cracked the door ajar
04:49
on a Pandora's box here.
04:52
And I think some people
are going to run with this technology
04:56
and try to make designer babies.
04:59
Now, before I go on, some of you
may hold up your hands and say,
05:02
"Stop, Paul, wait a minute.
05:05
Wouldn't that be illegal?
05:07
You can't just go off
and create a designer baby."
05:09
And in fact, to some extent, you're right.
05:13
In some countries, you couldn't do that.
05:15
But in many other countries,
including my country, the US,
05:18
there's actually no law on this,
so in theory, you could do it.
05:21
And there was another development
this year that resonates in this area,
05:26
and that happened
not so far from here over in the UK.
05:31
And the UK traditionally
has been the strictest country
05:34
when it comes to human
genetic modification.
05:37
It was illegal there,
05:40
but just a few months ago,
05:42
they carved out an exception to that rule.
05:44
They passed a new law
05:46
allowing the creation
of genetically modified humans
05:48
with the noble goal of trying
to prevent a rare kind of genetic disease.
05:51
But still I think in combination
these events are pushing us
05:56
further towards an acceptance
06:00
of human genetic modification.
06:02
So I've been talking
about this CRISPR technology.
06:05
What actually is CRISPR?
06:08
So if you think about the GMOs
that we're all more familiar with,
06:11
like GMO tomatoes and wheat
06:14
and things like that,
06:17
this technology
is similar to the technologies
06:19
that were used to make those,
06:22
but it's dramatically better,
06:24
cheaper and faster.
06:26
So what is it?
06:30
It's actually like
a genetic Swiss army knife.
06:31
We can pretend this is a Swiss army knife
06:34
with different tools in it,
06:36
and one of the tools
is kind of like a magnifying glass
06:37
or a GPS for our DNA,
06:40
so it can home in on a certain spot.
06:43
And the next tool is like scissors
06:46
that can cut the DNA right in that spot.
06:48
And finally we have a pen
06:51
where we can literally rewrite
the genetic code in that location.
06:53
It's really that simple.
06:57
And this technology, which came
on the scene just three years ago,
06:59
has taken science by storm.
07:03
It's evolving so fast, and it's
so freaking exciting to scientists,
07:06
and I admit I'm fascinated by it
and we use it in my own lab,
07:10
that I think someone
is going to go that extra step
07:15
and continue the GM human embryo work
07:18
and maybe make designer babies.
07:21
This is so ubiquitous now.
07:25
It just came on the scene three years ago.
07:26
Thousands of labs
literally have this in hand today,
07:29
and they're doing important research.
07:33
Most of them are not interested
in designer babies.
07:35
They're studying human disease
07:38
and other important elements of science.
07:41
So there's a lot of good research
going on with CRISPR.
07:43
And the fact that we can
now do genetic modifications
07:47
that used to take years
and cost millions of dollars
07:50
in a few weeks
for a couple thousand bucks,
07:54
to me as a scientist that's fantastic,
07:57
but again, at the same time,
07:59
it opens the door to people going too far.
08:01
And I think for some people
08:05
the focus is not going to be
so much on science.
08:06
That's not what's going
to be driving them.
08:09
It's going to be ideology
or the chase for a profit.
08:11
And they're going to go
for designer babies.
08:16
So why should we be concerned about this?
08:20
We know from Darwin,
if we go back two centuries,
08:24
that evolution and genetics
profoundly have impacted humanity,
08:27
who we are today.
08:31
And some think there's like
a social Darwinism at work in our world,
08:33
and maybe even a eugenics as well.
08:37
Imagine those trends, those forces,
08:40
with a booster rocket
of this CRISPR technology
08:44
that is so powerful and so ubiquitous.
08:47
And in fact, we can just go back
one century to the last century
08:51
to see the power that eugenics can have.
08:54
So my father, Peter Knoepfler,
08:58
was actually born right here in Vienna.
09:01
He was Viennese,
and he was born here in 1929.
09:04
And when my grandparents
had little baby Peter,
09:08
the world was very different. Right?
09:12
It was a different Vienna.
09:14
The United States was different.
09:15
The world was different.
09:17
There was a eugenics rising,
09:18
and my grandparents realized,
09:20
pretty quickly I think,
09:23
that they were on the wrong side
of the eugenics equation.
09:24
And so despite this being their home
09:28
and their whole extended family's home,
09:31
and this area being their family's
home for generations,
09:33
they decided because of eugenics
09:37
that they had to leave.
09:40
And they survived,
but they were heartbroken,
09:42
and I'm not sure my dad
ever really got over leaving Vienna.
09:44
He left when he was just eight years old
09:49
in 1938.
09:51
So today, I see a new eugenics
09:54
kind of bubbling to the surface.
09:57
It's supposed to be a kinder,
gentler, positive eugenics,
10:00
different than all that past stuff.
10:05
But I think even though it's focused
on trying to improve people,
10:08
it could have negative consequences,
10:12
and it really worries me
10:15
that some of the top proponents
of this new eugenics,
10:16
they think CRISPR is the ticket
to make it happen.
10:19
So I have to admit, you know,
10:24
eugenics, we talk
about making better people.
10:26
It's a tough question.
10:29
What is better when we're talking
about a human being?
10:30
But I admit I think maybe a lot of us
10:34
could agree that human beings,
10:37
maybe we could use a little betterment.
10:40
Look at our politicians
10:42
here, you know, back in the US --
10:44
God forbid we go there right now.
10:46
Maybe even if we just look in the mirror,
10:50
there might be ways
we think we could be better.
10:52
I might wish, honestly, that I had
more hair here, instead of baldness.
10:54
Some people might wish they were taller,
10:59
have a different weight, a different face.
11:02
If we could do those things,
we could make those things happen,
11:05
or we could make them happen
in our children,
11:09
it would be very seductive.
11:11
And yet coming with it
would be these risks.
11:14
I talked about eugenics,
11:16
but there would be risks
to individuals as well.
11:18
So if we forget about enhancing people
11:21
and we just try to make them
healthier using genetic modification,
11:24
this technology is so new
11:28
and so powerful,
11:31
that by accident
we could make them sicker.
11:32
That easily could happen.
11:36
And there's another risk,
11:38
and that is that all of the legitimate,
important genetic modification research
11:39
going on just in the lab --
11:44
again, no interest in designer babies --
11:46
a few people going
the designer baby route,
11:49
things go badly,
11:52
that entire field could be damaged.
11:53
I also think it's not that unlikely
11:57
that governments might start taking
an interest in genetic modification.
11:59
So for example our imagined GM Jenna child
12:04
who is healthier,
12:09
if there's a generation that looks
like they have lower health care costs,
12:11
it's possible that governments
may start trying to compel their citizens
12:15
to go the GM route.
12:19
Look at China's one-child policy.
12:21
It's thought that that prevented
the birth of 400 million human beings.
12:23
So it's not beyond the realm of possible
12:30
that genetic modification
could be something that governments push.
12:33
And if designer babies become popular,
12:37
in our digital age --
12:40
viral videos, social media --
12:42
what if designer babies
are thought to be fashionable,
12:45
and they kind of become
the new glitterati,
12:47
the new Kardashians or something?
12:50
(Laughter)
12:51
You know, are those trends
that we really could control?
12:52
I'm not convinced that we could.
12:57
So again, today it's Halloween
13:00
and when we talk
about genetic modification,
13:03
there's one Halloween-associated character
13:06
that is talked about
or invoked more than anything else,
13:09
and that is Frankenstein.
13:12
Mostly that's been Frankenfoods
and all this other stuff.
13:14
But if we think about this now
and we think about it in the human context
13:19
on a day like Halloween,
13:23
if parents can in essence
costume their children genetically,
13:24
are we going to be talking about
a Frankenstein 2.0 kind of situation?
13:30
I don't think so. I don't think
it's going to get to that extreme.
13:36
But when we are going about
hacking the human code,
13:39
I think all bets are off
in terms of what might come of that.
13:43
There would still be dangers.
13:46
And we can look in the past
13:49
to other elements
of transformative science
13:51
and see how they can
basically go out of control
13:53
and permeate society.
13:57
So I'll just give you one example,
and that is in vitro fertilization.
13:59
Almost exactly 40 years ago,
14:04
test tube baby number one
Louise Brown was born,
14:08
and that's a great thing,
14:11
and I think since then
five million IVF babies have been born,
14:13
bringing immeasurable happiness.
14:18
A lot of parents now can love those kids.
14:20
But if you think about it,
in four decades,
14:23
five million babies being born
from a new technology
14:25
is pretty remarkable,
14:29
and the same kind of thing could happen
14:31
with human genetic modification
and designer babies.
14:33
So depending on the decisions
we make in the next few months,
14:37
the next year or so,
14:40
if designer baby number one is born,
14:41
within a few decades,
14:44
there could well be millions
of genetically modified humans.
14:46
And there's a difference there too,
because if we, you in the audience, or I,
14:49
if we decide to have a designer baby,
14:54
then their children will also
be genetically modified, and so on,
14:57
because it's heritable.
15:01
So that's a big difference.
15:02
So with all of this in mind,
15:05
what should we do?
15:07
There's actually going to be a meeting
15:10
a month from tomorrow in Washington, D.C.
15:11
by the US National Academy of Sciences
15:14
to tackle that exact question.
15:16
What is the right path forward
with human genetic modification?
15:19
I believe at this time
15:24
we need a moratorium.
15:26
We have to ban this.
15:27
We should not allow
creating genetically modified people,
15:29
because it's just too dangerous
and too unpredictable.
15:33
But there's a lot of people --
15:37
(Applause)
15:38
Thanks.
15:40
(Applause)
15:41
And let me say, just as a scientist,
15:47
it's a little bit scary
for me to say that in public,
15:50
because science generally doesn't like
self-regulation and things like that.
15:52
So I think we need to put a hold on this,
15:59
but there are many people
who not only disagree with me,
16:02
they feel the exact opposite.
16:05
They're like, step on the gas,
full speed ahead,
16:06
let's make designer babies.
16:10
And so in the meeting in December
16:11
and other meetings that are likely
to follow in the next few months,
16:14
it's very possible
there may be no moratorium.
16:18
And I think part
of the problem that we have
16:21
is that all of this trend,
16:24
this revolution in genetic modification
applying to humans,
16:26
the public hasn't known about it.
16:30
Nobody has been saying,
16:32
look, this is a big deal,
this is a revolution,
16:34
and this could affect you
in very personal ways.
16:38
And so part of my goal
is actually to change that
16:40
and to educate and engage with the public
16:43
and get you guys talking about this.
16:46
And so I hope at these meetings
that there will be a role for the public
16:49
to bring their voice to bear as well.
16:53
So if we kind of circle back now
to 2030 again, that imagined story,
16:57
and depending on the decisions
we make, again, today --
17:03
literally we don't have a lot of time --
17:06
in the next few months,
the next year or so,
17:08
because this technology
is spreading like wildfire.
17:10
Let's pretend we're back in that reality.
17:13
We're at a park,
17:16
and our kid is swinging on the swing.
17:18
Is that kid a regular old kid,
17:22
or did we decide to have a designer baby?
17:25
And let's say we went
the sort of traditional route,
17:28
and there's our kid swinging on the swing,
17:32
and frankly, they're kind of a mess.
17:34
Their hair is all over
the place like mine.
17:37
They have a stuffy nose.
17:40
They're not the best student in the world.
17:42
They're adorable, you love them,
17:45
but there on the swing next to them,
17:47
their best friend is a GM kid,
17:49
and the two of them
are kind of swinging like this,
17:52
and you can't help
but compare them, right?
17:54
And the GM kid is swinging higher,
17:56
they look better,
they're a better student,
17:59
they don't have that stuffy nose
you need to wipe.
18:01
How is that going to make you feel
18:04
and what decision
might you make next time?
18:06
Thank you.
18:10
(Applause)
18:12

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Paul Knoepfler - Biologist
Paul Knoepfler is a biomedical scientist and writer focusing on stem cells and genetics.

Why you should listen

Dr. Paul Knoepfler loves stem cells. He is working to figure out how we use safely them to treat many diseases and how stem cells sometimes turn to the dark side to cause cancer. Over the years he has made key discoveries about how stem cells and cancer are programmed. Now he is especially interested in how to hack these cells to control their behavior, including using powerful CRISPR genetic modification technology.

Knoepfler has also been a leading voice in the discussion about how CRISPR could be used to make designer babies and the risks of going down that path. He is a professor of cell biology and anatomy at UC Davis School of Medicine in California, where he both does research and teaches. In addition, he is a prolific writer including his popular science blog, The Niche, and two books: Stem Cells: An Insider's Guide and GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies. He is excited about contributing to efforts to build an innovative, global community of interconnected people with a shared passion for biomedical science and battling fake science. Knoepfler’s outspoken, approachable nature in tackling some of the most transformative questions in science has made him a go-to scientist for journalists and ordinary people across the globe.

More profile about the speaker
Paul Knoepfler | Speaker | TED.com