BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

17 September 2014
Accessibility help
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-up

BBC Homepage

In TV & Radio

Contact Us

You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Programmes > Horizon
Ruiaridh Handyside
Who's Afraid of Designer Babies?

Read the programme transcript.

Programme summary

Designer babies Q&As

NARRATOR (DILLY BARLOW): Imagine a world where every child was perfect. They need never get ill. Always be happy. They could be bred to be geniuses, brilliant at music or sport. Some say this is no dream. That soon we'll be able to select the genes of our children and have 'designer babies'.

Dr LEE SILVER: Until now we've been limited to giving our children advantages after they're born. In the future parents are going to be able to give their children advantages at the very beginning, at the point of fertilisation.

NARRATOR: For others the idea of designer babies fills them with dread. They say it's playing god, that the weak or unusual won't be allowed to exist. That we will breed a master race. Or it could be even worse. We might create a breed of mutants.

Dr PHIL BEREANO: The more powerful the technology is and its proponents tell us it's very powerful, the more likely that the screw-ups are going to be very, very serious.

NARRATOR: No subject attracts more controversy than manipulating the genes of our offspring. Tonight Horizon cuts through the hype, lies and distortions to get at the truth. What is a designer baby and can we really create one today?

NARRATOR: Some say one of these children should never have been allowed to be born, that his existence is a threat to humanity. They say the technology that created his tiny body threatens to bring back one of the nightmares of our history, the dream of creating a perfectly bred race of humans. The Nazis wanted to improve the German race by controlling who had children and exterminating the imperfect. And some say we could use today's genetic technology to do the same thing, even if it was never intended to be used in that way. We could create a world devoid of individuality where only perfect children are allowed to be born. But is this baby really such a threat to us all? His only crime is that his mother was having great difficulty getting pregnant.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: I just kept miscarrying all the time, and it just actually got quite normal, and that was actually how awful it was, it was very hard but, and it sounds really harsh, but you just kind of get, it just becomes part of life. I mean I just used to get pregnant, lose it, pregnant, lose it and that was it.

NARRATOR: Philippa Handyside wasn't trying to create the perfect child, she just wanted to have a baby, but she wasn't having any luck. So she underwent testing to see why she was having so many miscarriages.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: They had a, quite a long list of, of things that they were testing for and they said we can fix absolutely everything bar one thing, which they didn't tell us what it was 'cause they said we're really hoping that's not what the problem is.

NARRATOR: But the tests revealed Philippa did have that one problem. The cause of her miscarriages was genetic, the result of a chromosome disorder. It meant most of her embryos didn't have the right combination of genes they needed to grow healthily. There was nothing Philippa's local hospital could do for her. It seemed she might never have children.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: When someone's saying to you well there's nothing we can do, we can't fix it, there's nothing we can do that's it, but keep getting pregnant and hopefully one of them will work out.

NARRATOR: But then Philippa heard about a new technique. It's a technique some people think could lead to designer babies. The technique is called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. Using PGD scientists can screen embryos outside the womb, long before they develop into babies. Then they can select just those embryos that carry healthy genes, to ensure the baby is free from genetic abnormalities.

Prof STEVE JONES: PGD is one of those ideas that's so clever that it seems almost impossible to do. I mean how could you possibly take a very early embryo and take out a cell and diagnose it. Well in the end it transpired that the embryo is such a tough little beast that it actually allows you to do fairly outrageous things to do, to it, without noticing.

NARRATOR: To do PGD the doctors first had to extract eggs from Philippa's ovaries. These eggs were then fertilised by her husband's sperm in a lab. The fertilised eggs were allowed to develop into a cluster of cells.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: You phone every day and you're told how they're getting on I mean it's like having children in nursery, you know you're told every day how they're progressing through.

NARRATOR: Then 48 hours after fertilisation, acid was used to etch a hole in the membrane of each embryo and a single cell sucked out.

Dr PAUL SERHAL: And on day 3 after egg collection we take a single cell from each embryo and we've sent those cells to our genetics team across the road so they can make the molecular diagnosis.

NARRATOR: The theory is that if the analysis shows the genes are normal in the single cell, then the embryo it came from will also be genetically normal.

GENETICIST: So that's ok, two blue, two green and two red, so that's fine that one.

Dr JOYCE HARPER: We can take a cell from the IVF embryo that we've grown in-vitro and we can use our single cell genetic testing to find out if the embryo is free from disease or actually has the disorder the couple are carrying.

NARRATOR: Eventually they found cells from two of Philippa's embryos that had healthy genes.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: They called us through and said yeah we've got a couple. The geneticists came down to see us and said there's one that is not, it's not divided so well but the other one brilliant, absolutely brilliant, so we're going to implant, if you're happy, two back in. So it was a case of get ready and get kind of into, into the room and ready to have the implantation done.

NARRATOR: Two embryos which didn't carry Philippa's chromosome problem were implanted back into her womb. PGD was developed so parents like Philippa could eradicate genetic abnormalities from their family tree, and have healthy children. But some say that in the future it won't just be used to prevent devastating genetic diseases.

Dr LEE SILVER: I have no doubt that in the future people are going to want to use this technology for uses that go beyond medicine, for uses that are cosmetic, for things like eye colour and height and other things that are on the border of medicine like longevity. I have no question in my mind this technology is going to be used to provide people with these kinds of, of genetic choices in their children.

NARRATOR: As the use of PGD expands some people are worried about just what genetic choices we will make. That we might select for genes that affect looks or personality. They think we've already started on a slippery slope to a world where only genetically perfect humans are allowed to be born. And that the possibility of abusing PGD to create a master race draws closer as we discover more about what our genes do. The human genome project has already catalogued all 3 billion letters of the human DNA code. And barely a week goes by without scientists claiming to have discovered how yet another gene affects us. Some of these genes are clearly linked to disease. But others seem to have the power to influence our behaviour. Dean Hamer was one of the first scientists to link genes to mood. He discovered a gene which he thinks affects happiness.

Dr DEAN HAMER: We found the gene was like a natural Prozac. Some people are born with a long version that's as if they were taking Prozac their whole life long. Other people are born with the short version that's like they have never had the Prozac. And so that raised the question what effect would this have on the personality, would the gene really act like Prozac, would it make some people less depressed and less anxious, or would it have no effect at all?

NARRATOR: Hamer analysed the personalities of hundreds of people and checked which form of the gene they had, long or short. He found one type of personality was dramatically affected by the length of the gene, the neurotic type.

Dr DEAN HAMER: People with a lot of neuroticism are as if they had gotten up on the wrong side of bed every single day and there we found a big connection with the gene. People with the long from that were low in neuroticism, they were feeling good about themselves, optimistic about their future. People with the short form of the gene were just the opposite. On average, they were more depressed, they were more worried about things, they were more pessimistic. This was really exciting because even though we might have expected this result, it was one of the first clear demonstrations that one single gene could make a big difference in a person's personality.

NARRATOR: Since Hamer's discovery genetics has advanced at an amazing rate. Genes have been found that are said to be linked to homosexuality. Others to alcoholism, risk-taking and even perfect pitch. And if we know what genes to look for, it's said we could use PGD to choose a child with brown eyes, or blonde hair. Select a boy, or a girl. A child that would be more intelligent, taller, stronger or more well balanced than its peers. They say that using PGD we could design a baby with exactly the characteristics we want.

Dr LEE SILVER: A man and a woman that want to have a child will walk into a fertility clinic and the doctors will take 100-200 eggs out of the woman. They'll be fertilised with the man's sperm and then they'll do a genetic profile on all 200 embryos and choose the embryo that has the combination of genes from the two parents that the parents want to see in their child. That's where they'll start.

NARRATOR: This is Lee Silver's vision of the future, as filmed by Horizon over twenty years ago.

OLD HORIZON SEQUENCE: Fertilisation's all very successful. What about her character and emotions?

OLD HORIZON SEQUENCE: Well yes there are a few things we'd like to have modified if possible. We'd like to reduce shyness and susceptibility to depression, without necessarily damaging any artistic potential. Also we'd like her to be musical and if possible also we want her to be ambitious.

OLD HORIZON SEQUENCE: But we definitely don't want to tamper with the physical side of things in any way.

OLD HORIZON SEQUENCE: No except we would like her to have my father's red hair.

OLD HORIZON SEQUENCE: A well let's see if we can make a budding musician out of her.

NARRATOR: It sounds amazing, but there's one basic problem with this vision of the future. Using PGD to create a designer baby just isn't that easy. Just ask Philippa. PGD is a lengthy and difficult procedure. In order for the embryos to be analysed in a lab, every patient has to undergo fertility treatment, whether they're infertile or not.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: I was 27 when we started on the procedure and we went down to the clinic. And sitting in the waiting-room I sort of thought, well I'm much younger than everybody in here, you know, I really shouldn't be in a fertility clinic, I can get pregnancy at the drop of a hat, you know, I, I this doesn't make sense that I'm sitting in here waiting to have this treatment. But in order to have the PGD you have to go through the IVF cycle in the first place.

NARRATOR: Philippa spent months travelling back and forth to the London clinic. She began by taking a variety of different drugs, to stimulate her ovaries to produce eggs.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: Nasal spray we started with and we went on to the, tablets with the nasal spray. Then you drop the nasal spray and carry on with the tablets. Then you start on the injections which were just horrendous. I did all the injections myself which for somebody who's needle phobic was just absolutely horrific. And the worst thing that I've ever had to do to myself. Certainly would not be doing it out of choice.

NARRATOR: But six weeks of drug-taking was not the worst part of Philippa's treatment. The doctors managed to extract twelve eggs from her. But when the embryos were checked by the genetics lab not one of them was healthy.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: There'd been such a big build up, so much time, so much emotion, so much effort, on everybody's part, to have nothing, absolutely nothing at the end of it was devastating, absolutely devastating.

NARRATOR: So Philippa had to undergo the whole traumatic procedure again. This time fourteen eggs were collected. And two embryos were found which did not carry Philippa's chromosome disorder. She finally gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: To have a real live baby, we just kept thinking, well I just kept thinking he's, he's going to go, there's something that's going to go wrong, and that took, that took months to go, that took a long time to ever go, 'cause we still were expecting him, I was still expecting him to die or something to go wrong. I never expected him to be completely perfect, completely healthy and absolutely nothing to be wrong with him at all, and just be beautiful.

NARRATOR: Philippa's son Rory is just like any other baby. He's simply healthy, not genetically modified.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: He's no different to a normal baby, he just doesn't carry the, carry or be affected by the chromosome disorder which I have. And that's a lovely thing to know that when I die it dies with me. You know, we haven't passed something on to our son and I don't have to feel responsible. It's just nice that it's finished it's over.

NARRATOR: But it took Philippa three long years to have her healthy son. It's an experience she found so fraught that she thinks no-one would go though it just to ensure their child looked right.

PHILIPPA HANDYSIDE: You would not have IVF unless you have to. You would not put yourself through the treatment, put yourself through all the drug-taking, put your family through the stress if you didn't have to. You just, you wouldn't, you're mad, you know you just wouldn't. And the hospital wouldn't let you. They don't just take people on because they fancy having a blue eyed blonde haired baby. You know It doesn't happen.

NARRATOR: PGD would be a drastic step to take, simply to select a baby for cosmetic reasons. But even if someone were prepared to do that, there would still be technical difficulties to be overcome. Geneticists now believe that most of our characteristics are influenced by more than one gene. Even Dean Hamer admits the one gene he discovered is not enough to select for a happy child.

Dr DEAN HAMER: We're very confident this gene is involved. We're equally confident that it's not the only one. There are probably at least 10 other genes, there could be 100 or 1,000 different genes, so like all complex human traits, whether it's happiness or body weight or the shape of your nose, many many different genes are involved.

NARRATOR: Any characteristic we might like to change, from height to intelligence, will be influenced by a group of genes. But today PGD technology can only test for a maximum of two of genes at a time. Perfect for certain types of inherited disease. But useless for something as genetically complex as behaviour.

Dr JOYCE HARPER: Certainly trying to do a test for many different genes at the moment is technically very, very difficult to do on a single cell. And we've only tested for two genes at one time and I don't believe anyone worldwide has ever tested for more than two genes.

NARRATOR: Until PGD can look at many genes at once, using it to select a complex character trait is impossible. But even if we could look at every gene in an embryo, there's a final hurdle to be overcome. To use PGD to create a designer baby with your ideal combination of genes, you'd need a choice of hundreds of embryos.

OLD HORIZON SEQUENCE: Two male and four female, and as you requested Pat they all come from your third super ovulation from the batch that produced Lily. And the sperm from your May donation Conrad.

NARRATOR: In reality there are only a small number of eggs collected in each PGD treatment. So finding an embryo with exactly the right combination of genes is extremely unlikely.

Prof STEVE JONES: In simple practical terms if you're doing PGD you've only got a few embryos to play with. And when of course you come to things which are what you might say within the normal range, intelligence let's say, there are lots and lots of genes involved and the chances of you finding the right combination in your dish full of embryos are really quite small.

NARRATOR: And if the parents don't carry the right genes in the first place, to be good at music, or sport, or to be intelligent, then looking for that characteristic is pointless.

Dr JOYCE HARPER: We're not designing any babies, we're not doing any genetic manipulation of the embryo. We can only select the embryo that the couples produce, so if they're not going to produce an, an embryo that's very intelligent then we can't select for it.

NARRATOR: PGD is unlikely to be used to select a designer baby. It will remain a technique for something far more important, diagnosing terrible genetic conditions before they can harm our children. To create a true designer baby, we couldn't rely on an embryo with just the right genes occurring by chance. We'd need to be able to insert any genes we wanted. And some say a way to do this may already have been discovered. French Anderson has been hailed as one of the most remarkable scientists of our time. He pioneered what claimed to be the biggest revolution in modern medicine, treating genetic disease by inserting healthy genes into patients. It's called gene therapy. In 1990 Anderson treated his first patient, four year old Ashi De Silva. She had a faulty gene that meant her immune system didn't work properly.

Dr FRENCH ANDERSON: Ashi was, had a disease called ADA deficiency. She never left the house, except to go to the hospital or to the doctor. She was just kept in quarantine because she was constantly sick.

NARRATOR: Anderson and his team extracted blood from Ashi. Then they took a healthy immune system gene from a donor and put it into her white blood cells in the lab. The cells with the new healthy gene were then re-injected into Ashi's blood stream. Then they waited to see if the genetically modified white blood cells would work.

Dr FRENCH ANDERSON: She was within six months, her family began to realise that she wasn't sick at all any more, that she was starting to do all the things that normal kids do, and what tipped it over for the parents, was in the spring, just about 6 months after she started therapy, the whole family came down with the flu. And the first one up and playing was Ashi, and the parents could not believe they were sick in bed and their immune deficient child was up and playing around.

NARRATOR: Ashi's gene therapy treatment was successful. But it wasn't perfect. Her body still created its own blood cells with the defective gene. So Ashi needs regular injections of healthy genes for the rest of her life. Anderson wanted to find a way to cure someone with a disease like this forever. Anderson realised if the patient's own body could produce blood cells with the healthy genes, they would no longer need injections. He thought the answer might be to get the healthy genes into a very special type of blood cell, the ones that make all the other blood cells.

Dr FRENCH ANDERSON: The key cells that we really want to get genes into are the so-called blood stem cells, because these are the cells which continue to repopulate the blood system for our whole lives. Some of our blood cells only last a few hours, some last a few days, some last a few weeks. But basically they're constantly turning over, so we need to get genes into that original stem cell that will, that will, that reproduces the blood system.

NARRATOR: Anderson thought he might be able to get into these stem cells by injecting the healthy genes directly into a foetus in the womb. In theory, if the new genes made it into the blood stem cells, the foetus would then create it's own cells with healthy genes forever. It would be cured. It seemed the perfect solution, and in 1998 he decided to make it public.

Dr FRENCH ANDERSON: And so we brought this to the government regulatory committees basically three years before we anticipate being ready to actually do a clinical protocol. And as expected, there was considerable interest in this topic, as we did not expect there was a considerable amount of hysteria about this topic.

NARRATOR: The hysteria was caused by these mice. New genes were inserted into them when they were just embryos. Effectively a form of gene therapy on the unborn mice.

Dr LEE SILVER: The very first gene that was added to an embryo was a gene coding for growth hormone. It's a gene that causes an animal to grow larger. And a growth hormone gene from a rat was placed into a mouse embryo and when the mouse was born and it grew up it grew to twice the size of a normal mouse. This had a horrifying incredible effect on society at large. I mean this was the first instance of genetic engineering actually occurring in an animal.

NARRATOR: What's so sinister about these mice is that the new gene had been copied into every single cell of their bodies, including the eggs and sperm. So, crucially, all their offspring would also be giants. The scientists had altered their so-called germ line forever, creating a new breed of designer mice. French Anderson had no intention of altering the human germ line. He only wanted to cure disease. But by introducing the genes at such an early stage of development, no one could be sure that the genes wouldn't enter the germ line as well. And if they did, his treatment would lead to a never-ending line of genetically engineered humans. For Anderson, the goal of curing sick children made it a risk worth taking.

Dr FRENCH ANDERSON: Many people seem to feel that our honest statement that there might be a very low level of inadvertent germ line gene transfer might really be hiding that we're trying to get into the germ line, we're trying to redesign babies.

NARRATOR: But for others even an accidental change to the germ line could not be dismissed easily.

Dr PHIL BEREANO: It's immaterial whether he intends it or not. Society has to deal with the reality of the consequences and whether this one person intended those consequences or not is immaterial to the, either the ethical issue or, or the social reality of what's going to be produced from them.

Dr LEE SILVER: The problem is that once we tinker with the genes and the sperm and the egg we give somebody the ability to be able to pass on these new genetic elements that have never been present in human beings before and they get passed on to the generation, next generation. They can get passed on to generation after generation for untold number of generations and so in a sense it gives us the ability to completely change the human species.

NARRATOR: The stage was set for a mighty ethical battle. Anderson was convinced that foetal gene therapy could work and was responsible. Set against him were moralists and some scientists who feared it would lead to designer babies. But in the end it all came to nothing. The difficult part of gene therapy had always been getting the healthy gene into a cell. Anderson had used a virus. These viruses had been modified so that they wouldn't cause an infection, as they transported the healthy genes inside the cells. In other clinical trials, these modified viruses also seemed to be working. But then one gene therapy trial, in Philadelphia went dramatically wrong. Jesse Gelsinger had been injected with a modified cold virus as part of a gene therapy treatment. But the virus was not as safe as scientists had thought. Within a week it had attacked all his major organs and he died.

NEWS CLIP: Medical detectives have now concluded that an 18-year-old is the first known person ever to die as a direct result of gene therapy.

Dr FRENCH ANDERSON: When Jesse died it just stunned all of us, it just, it just, we realised that, that we just didn't know enough about what was going on, that the body had reactions, had defences that we didn't really understand, and it really required going back and really rethinking everything we were doing.

NARRATOR: Jesse's tragic death changed everything. It was clearly far too early to think about using this potentially dangerous technique in the womb.

Prof STEVE JONES ROLL: It's hard enough in a child or an adult, but many people don't realise what fantastic things go on in the womb. Enormous quantities of cell division, huge sheaths of tissue moving around and folding and unfolding like origami, the embryo almost turning itself inside out as it develops. If anything goes wrong with any of those things then it's, the effects are disastrous. And nobody really knows what would happen if you randomly insert genes into this astonishing, tiny little object, and I really don't think that we're anywhere near getting ready for that to be safe.

NARRATOR: Today no-one, not even French Anderson, is attempting gene therapy on human foetuses. It continues to be used to treat a handful of diseases in children. It may never be used to create a designer baby. But there is still one area of research which might enable scientists to introduce new genes into our babies- cloning. The creation of genetically identical animals. In 1997 Dolly the sheep was born and the world went mad.

Prof STEVE JONES ROLL: Dolly the sheep was a genuinely amazing moment. First of all sheep are, you know, we like sheep and we are like sheep, sheep are pretty much like us, and biologists had never really thought it was going to be do-able with mammals, it had been done thirty years before with frogs, but frogs are simple. So if you could do it with sheep you could do it with humans.

NARRATOR: To create a clone, the scientists had taken a single sheep egg. They sucked out it's genetic material, and replaced it with the DNA of a completely different sheep. The egg was then placed in a bed of chemicals. An electric shock brought the egg to life. It began to divide. Soon the scientists had an embryo which they implanted back into a sheep's womb. Five months later Dolly was born, a clone bearing no genetic relation to her mother. A year later the scientists at the Roslin Institute created an even smarter sheep. Polly is also a clone. But she's more than that. She, and her three identical sisters, have been genetically modified. They are designer sheep.

Dr KEITH CAMPBELL: Polly's very important because she's the first demonstration that we can actually add genes to animals using the new technology and she contains a human gene which clones for a blood-clotting factor, Factor 9, which she produces in quite large amounts in her milk.

NARRATOR: Polly was created just like Dolly, except for one crucial step. Before they used cloning technology the scientists actually designed Polly's DNA. They created exactly the DNA they wanted by adding the new human gene into ordinary sheep cells. Then, just as for Dolly, they put that DNA into an egg, zapped it, and grew a sheep. What Polly proved was that if you could clone an animal, you could change its DNA in any way you liked at the same time. And the new cloning technology didn't just work on sheep. In theory if you could make designer animals with cloning you could also make designer babies. And some people claim they've already cloned a human.

NEWS REPORT: Good evening, scientists working for an obscure north American religious cult say they have produced the world's first cloned baby.

NEWS REPORT: The man who inspired today's possible breakthrough is seen here emerging from a space ship.

NEWS REPORT: The first baby cloned is born.

NEWS REPORT: A controversial Italian doctor says he is ready to start cloning human beings later this year.

NEWS REPORT: A controversial American fertility scientist is claiming to have implanted a cloned embryo.

NEWS REPORT: You can call it a guinea pig if you want to.

NARRATOR: Since Dolly there have been a flood of unsubstantiated claims that humans have been cloned. The worry is that if even weird cults and maverick scientists can clone humans, then how can we hope to prevent the advent of a designer baby. But the reality is no-one has yet produced a shred of evidence that they've actually cloned a baby. And our experience with animals suggests it could lead to disaster.

Dr KEITH CAMPBELL: The technology's still in its infancy. There are large parts of it we do not understand and we do have some abnormalities during development. We lose a lot of lambs during gestation. I feel that with all these abnormalities it would not even be ethically right to consider trying this in humans.

NARRATOR: In animals around 90% of attempts at cloning fail. Many result in miscarriages and terrible abnormalities. Imagine if that happened to a human baby.

Dr PHIL BEREANO: We should read some more Greek tragedy, that's what we should learn. We should read that humans can't always predict what the future's going to be and that our arrogance and our pride very often leads to disasters.

NARRATOR: And if those results weren't bad enough, adding in new genes could make matters worse.

Dr DEAN HAMER: There's another example of where genes go awry or do different things than we expect also from animal research, where scientists changed the gene that controls muscle development and the resulting mice grew up very big and muscular. They had almost two times the muscle mass of a normal mouse, they were sort of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of mice.

NARRATOR: But what no one had even considered was that the gene that makes a muscle mouse might also affect behaviour.

Dr DEAN HAMER: But for some reason completely unexpected, this genetic change also altered the personality of the mice and made them very meek, passive, sort of laid back. They wouldn't even defend themselves. So you might think hey, I'm going to make my son into a real, you know, Schwarzenegger, a real muscle man, and end up with somebody who couldn't even defend themselves. That's because one gene can do a lot of different things and we might think that we know everything about a gene but if we are missing even one little aspect of what it does we could, we could really mess up some people. This would not be a good idea.

NARRATOR: The truth is we simply don't know enough about our genes to create a designer baby safely. And using cloning to do it is just far too dangerous. But if that's the case then what's happening at this lab in Newcastle. They've recently been licensed to do a form of cloning. And they aren't working on sheep, but human eggs. They freely admit, what they do here is very similar to the work done with Dolly.

Dr MIODRAG STOJKOVIC: There is no difference, there is no difference in technical, in technical skill, the only difference is that you, in animal work you are using animal eggs, in human work you are using human eggs and cells.

NARRATOR: Their work has generated speculation that human clones, and so designer babies, could be created here in Britain. But despite the alarmist headlines there is a crucial difference between what they're doing here and the work that created Dolly. Here they don't want to make babies but stem cells.

Dr MIODRAG STOJKOVIC: When eggs start to divide we will wait 5 to 8 days until we will get approximately 100, 150 cells. From this stage we would like to isolate cells which can give us human embryonic stem cells.

NARRATOR: Human embryonic stem cells are at the cutting edge of modern medicine. They have the ability to transform themselves into any other kind of cell in the human body.

Dr MIODRAG STOJKOVIC: Using human embryonic stem cells, you can convince these human embryonic stem cells to be for instance tomorrow nerve cells, or pancreas cells or beating heart muscle cells and other cell types which you can be used for cell therapy.

NARRATOR: This work has nothing to do with designer babies, but something called "therapeutic cloning". The plan is to use cloning technology to produce stem cells which are an exact DNA match for a patient with a degenerative disease. The stem cells could then be turned into whatever type of cells are needed to rebuild their failing organs.

Prof ALISON MURDOCH: The goal we're looking for you know sometime in the future, is that we could have a patient who has diabetes for instance, would go along to the unit, have a tiny sample of skin cell taken from them. We would then do the nuclear transfer, create stem cells from them, make pancreatic cells that make insulin, inject them back into the patient and then effectively that could cure their diabetes.

NARRATOR: Therapeutic cloning is a technique which one day could help millions of us. It may lead to new drugs and perhaps even cures to a whole host of diseases.

Prof ALISON MURDOCH: The potential of nuclear transfer and stem cell work is important because it can help just about any condition in which there is lost or damaged cells. Diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, spinal injuries, burns, people who have heart attacks and have got damaged heart muscle, we can inject new heart muscle, the heart muscle cells in. The list is almost endless and that's why it is so important.

NARRATOR: Therapeutic cloning, as done here at Newcastle, will never lead to designer babies. Not only is human cloning illegal, no one here even wants to do it.

Prof ALISON MURDOCH: The slippery slope argument that says that we're going to move this nearer towards reproductive cloning, well I don't think that's a problem at all. Scientists say it's not safe and clinicians say it's not indicated clinically. So reproductive cloning it's banned in the UK, we're not going to do it and I entirely support that.

NARRATOR: So there really is no need to worry about designer babies yet. Certainly there are cranks out there. But a designer baby future is pure science fiction. Choosing a child with exactly the genes you wanted would be both technically difficult and extremely dangerous. Instead techniques for choosing and manipulating our genes, be it PGD, gene therapy or cloning are focused on something we all want. Not perfect babies, but treatments for infertility and cures for serious diseases.

Prof STEVE JONES: It will be the case, I very much hope, that many lives will be saved and a great deal of suffering will be avoided by using genetic technology. Those who spend their time decrying it and cursing it as unnatural might just step back for a moment and remember that.

Prof ALISON MURDOCH: By helping people who are sick to find cures for their diseases, that's what it's all about, that's what's driving us to do this new technology, it's nothing to do with designer babies.

NARRATOR: Of course that won't stop people wanting to have designer babies. But the truth is there are much easier ways to enhance your children than by altering their genes.

Prof STEVE JONES ROLL: The phrase 'designer baby' just fills me with despair, because it's one of those things that promises so much and delivers almost nothing. What do you mean by designer baby? You design your baby when you, when you choose to go to bed with somebody, okay? That's where the designer baby starts, and that's no doubt crafted by evolution. You design your baby when you send him or her to Eton, or to the local comprehensive. The environment designs your baby, that's happened since humans evolved. And the notion that we can somehow radically change the process by technology just seems to me fundamentally foolish. We can't do it. We can't do it technically, if we could do it technically we probably wouldn't want to do it because it would be much less efficient than doing it environmentally.

Back to top

Back to the Horizon homepage

 Horizon - last series

Horizon homepage

Does the MMR Jab Cause Autism?

Defeating the Curse

The Next Megaquake

The Lost Civilisation of Peru

An Experiment to Save the World


Living with ADHD

Einstein's Equation of Life and Death

Einstein's Unfinished Symphony

Global Dimming

Dr Money and the Boy with No Penis

The Hunt for the Supertwister

Saturn - Lord of the Rings

Making Millions the Easy Way

What Really Killed the Dinosaurs?

Derek Tastes of Earwax

The Truth about Vitamins

King Solomon's Tablet of Stone

 Elsewhere on

Religion & Ethics: Designer Babies
The rights and wrongs of genetic engineering.

News: Scientists given cloning go-ahead
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority grants licence to experts at the University of Newcastle.

Parenting: Having a baby
It's good to be prepared...

 Elsewhere on the web

News and discussion on the science of genetics and assisted reproduction.

DNA Files
How our genes work, with discussions on gene therapy and cloning.

Genetic Interest Group
An introduction to genetics and genetic disorders.

The Roslin Institute
A brief history of cloning.

Guardian Unlimited
Picture gallery of cloned animals.

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
The regulator of clinics performing research or treatment on human eggs and embryos.

American Journal of Bioethics

Human Genetics Alert
A public interest group which opposes certain uses of genetic technology.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

The BBC is not liable for the content of any external internet sites listed, nor does it endorse any commercial product or service mentioned or advised on any of the sites.

Science Homepage | Nature Homepage
Wildlife Finder | Prehistoric Life | Human Body & Mind | Space
Go to top

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy