Feature Archive

Coming Soon: Designer Babies?

Embryo screening for genes that cause disease is already happening. How far will it go?

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Is the age of "designer babies" looming closer? In Britain, four couples have won approval for embryo screening for cancer genes. Some consider it a controversial case.

All the couples are affected by an inherited form of aggressive colon cancer and are getting in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments to get pregnant. The couples appealed to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority -- which governs embryo screening in Britain -- to allow them to select an embryo without the cancer gene.

They have won that right. Now, their child and future generations are unlikely to have the cancer gene.

Could this happen in the U.S.? Are we on a slippery slope leading toward designer babies with "basketball star" genes, green eyes, or curly hair? To find out, WebMD spoke with a few experts.

Embryo Screening Still Evolving

"The use of the technology to prevent disease is wonderful. ... When you're preventing lethal and horrible disease in children, it's a good use," Art Caplan, PhD, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics, tells WebMD.

"But when you get into hair color and freckle selection, that's a whole different story," Caplan says. "In our market, whatever you can pay for, you can do. We don't have [a regulatory agency] here to stop us from going where money and bias can take us. The prospect for a slippery slope has been handled in England because they have built stairs."