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Do GM mice raise the spectre of designer babies?

6 September 1999
By Professor Marcus Pembrey
Chairman, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 24
The short answer is no!

'GENETIC SUPER BABIES STORM: key discovery raises spectre of designer children with high IQs (intelligence quotients)' is how the Daily Mail announced the report of enhanced learning and memory in mice with over-expressed NMDA 2B receptors, the lead story in BioNews this week. A few weeks back I argued in a BioNews commentary that we are going to have to live with less than satisfactory headlines as genetic approaches revolutionise research into behaviour. The temptation of the catchy headline is just too great. But by any standards, the above headline is an extraordinary 'non sequitur'.    Prolonging (into adulthood) the higher level of learning and memory that normally occurs in young mice by genetically engineered over-expression of a receptor on brain cells in laboratory mice is an important research result. It is one more piece of evidence in support of a 50-year old hypothesis on how learning and memory occurs in the mammalian brain. How directly this result will help biomedical research into human learning impairments or severe memory loss associated with old age is not clear at this stage. What is clear is that no research equals no progress in tackling these handicaps. Other recent work in mice (Mohn et al Cell 98,427-436.1999) suggests that another component of the NMDA receptor is highly relevant to understanding schizophrenia.

Will all transgenic research in laboratory animals from now on 'raise the spectre of designer babies'? In the Daily Mail's defence they did carry a quote (an unfortunate one in my opinion) from Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of ethics at the British Medical Association. She is quoted as saying 'É. This discovery leads to the spectre of designer babies and the concept of children being rejected because they do not have these qualities'. Why should it? Society is capable of drawing lines and does so all the time. There is a pretty large gap between research in mice aimed at understanding how the brain works and attempts to genetically modify human embryos during IVF. The first doesn't, in anyway, merge with the second. In any case, genetically modifying human embryos is illegal in the UK.

If anything, the NMDA receptor research will lead to specific drugs aimed at treating serious mental disorders. At most this might raise the spectre of drug abuse by people trying to enhance their mental powers. The discovery of the growth-enhancing effects of steroids has led to cheating in athletics, but it has hardly created a 'super designer babies storm'.


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