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Posted August 22, 2012: by Bill Sardi
Should humanity begin screening human embryos for personality and moral flaws? That is what a bioethicist says must be done and humanity should not hesitate a moment in doing it. A bioethicist, Julian Savulescu at Oxford University, says humanity is just a step away from designer babies since it already screens for inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome in embryos. Parents could choose desirable characteristics to produce a “more intelligent and less violent” society, he says. Genetically engineered “ethical” babies are a moral obligation and a part of “responsible parenting,” he emphasizes in a recent issue of the UK’s Telegraph.
Savulescu outlines his “procreative beneficence” methodology by “preimplantation genetic diagnosis via in vitro fertilization.” Chromosomal abnormalities or other undesirable inherited characteristics would be detected and deselected from embryos in a lab dish and then implanted in the uterus. (You can listen to lectures by Julian Savulescu here and here. Though I would warn you to read the remainder of this report before being swayed by his arguments.)
Savulescu doesn’t stop at voluntary efforts to alter human behavior. He advocates governments force mind-enhancing chemicals upon its subjects. He says: “a government which refuses to enhance its population might well be effectively disabling it.” He is openly talking about doping entire human populations against their will with an attitude that the masses don’t know what is good for them, so government might as well step in.
Savulescu, writing in an online blog, says we already fluoridate water to prevent dental decay, we fortify foods with folic acid to prevent birth defects, we use caffeine and nicotine as brain stimulators, we prescribe Ritalin for children who have difficulty maintaining attention at school, so why not proceed with making smarter people via chemistry, beginning in the womb?
Savulescu was postulating his theories before much was reported about human genetics. In 2001 he said “It is possible that in the future some genes are identified which make it more likely that a person will engage in criminal behavior.”
But that gene has not been found in over a decade.
Brigitta Bondy at Munich University writes that researchers have spent more than 20 years attempting to unravel genetic susceptibility genes without success.
Dr. Philip M Rosoff of the Department of Pediatrics at Duke University says proponents of genetic enhancement advocate research and implementation, that is, putting it into practice, while critics see this as an assault upon human freedom. He says the arguments between these camps of thought assume science will either achieve their dreams or their nightmares. But both falsely believe genetic determinism can produce traits such as intelligence or aggression that are directed by specific genes. He says genetics is too complex to believe it can be directed towards a specific behavioral outcome.
But as an aside, in another report Dr. Rosoff goes on to say that some forethought ought to be given to animal experiments that would enhance intelligence, such as in chimpanzees, and asks how biologists would “resolve the tragic question of what to do with research animals who have a cognitive capacity that is close to that of humans.” Really? Are the Darwinists ready to make monkeys talk and write poetry?
Researchers in Italy argue that the anatomical areas of the brain from which morality emanates are known and that moral decision making can be influenced by genetic, hormonal and environmental factors. Immoral behavior can be treated.
So immoral behavior suggests a trip to see a chemist, not a priest?
You may recall the famous “Twinkie defense,” referring to a sugary cake popularly sold throughout the U.S. A man who murdered two people in 1978 and then claimed a sugar rush caused by eating a junk food diet caused him to shoot and kill two people, which became known as the “Twinkie defense.” For the record, the jury didn’t buy into his idea. So “the Twinkies made me do it,” or another often heard defense for immoral behavior is “the devil made me do it.” What of God-given free will and conscious choice?
And what do we make of the case of a 23-year old woman who experienced a major behavior change after a cable car accident in San Francisco. She became in insatiable nymphomaniac.
From a legal standpoint, an Italian judge has already decided to further reduce the prison sentence by 1-year of a person convicted of murder – from 9 to 8 years – because he was found to be a carrier of a few genetic variants thought to be associated with predisposition towards aggressiveness.
Savulescu postulated his ideas of removal of bad behavior genes years before much was reported about epigenetics. Within the past few years, developmental biologists have switched their attention from the study of DNA sequencing to the epigenetic state of the genome.
Genetics involves the sequence of DNA, specifically the sequencing of nucleotides (adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine) on the DNA ladder. Any deletion or substitution of these nucleotides constitutes a DNA mutation. Genetics involves fatalism — you are born with the genes you inherit from your forefathers, and that is that. Only about 2% of human disease is explained by genetics.
Epigenetics encompasses genetic changes that are copied from one cell generation to the next, which may alter gene expression (protein making) but which does not involve changes in the primary DNA sequence. (A good online primer on epigenetics can be found here.)
If you get a bit confused over the difference between genetics and epigenetics, think of the former involving DNA structure and the latter DNA function. The big thing to learn is that epigenetics involves switching your genes on or off (called gene expression or silencing by biologists). The lesson is that your genes are not static.
Environmental factors such as radiation, temperature and food (nutrient) consumption all produce epigenetic changes. The sum of genome-wide epigenetic patterns is known as the epigenome. A global gene array can now be conducted on all 25,000 human genes to determine how many are switched on or off, and how intensely.
At least some of these epigenetic changes are remembered through multiple cell generations (called gene imprinting) and their effects may be revealed in altered gene expression and cell function. Epigenetics explains why identical twins, despite their identical genes, show increasing diversity with advancing age and divergent lifestyles.
Regarding physical diseases, there is a growing concern among biologists that the current diabesity epidemic underway in America was epigenetically programmed into the current generation before they were born. Poor nutrition during development in the womb is the primary area of concern. What behavioral or intellectual effects pre-birth epigenetics has had on the current generation is unknown.
There are three ways the epigenome can be altered. These are: (1) methylation (largely by B vitamins), (2) enzyme modification (histone deacetylase) or (3) microRNA. These three mechanisms can switch genes on or off (make proteins or stop making proteins).
There is one critical period in life where epigenetics first establishes those epigenetic patterns, when humans are in the womb.
Researchers at Rhode Island Hospital, Division of Behavioral Genetics state:
“The period of in utero development is one of the most crucial stages of development during which adverse environmental exposures can both alter the growth and development of the fetus as well as lead to aberrant fetal programming, increasing disease risk later in life. During fetal development and beyond, the plethora of exposures, including nutrients, drugs, stress, and trauma, influence health, development, and survival. Recent research in environmental epigenetics has investigated the roles of environmental exposures in influencing epigenetic modes of gene regulation during pregnancy and at various stages of life. Many relatively common environmental exposures, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, and drug use, may have consequences for the expression and function of non-coding RNA, important regulators of gene expression.”
It is interesting to note that forceps delivery combined with serious early separation, correlates with over 4 times the risk of criminal violence by the age of 18. So disruptions of nurture set at risk body and brain.
Only in recent times have biologists recognized that ‘in utero’ or early life exposures to dietary and environmental exposures can have a profound effect on our epigenetic code, the so-called ‘epigenome’, that can result in birth defects and diseases later in life. Exposure to nutrients or toxins at this critical early stage may be more important than what occurs thereafter.
Recall now the Savulescu demands in vitro alteration of genes, that all human life should begin in a lab dish and then be implanted in the uterus. In regard to epigenetics, what is notable is that is that there is an observable difference in DNA methylation between rabbit embryos cultured in a lab dish (in vitro) versus in the uterus (in vivo). This is the very same reproductive technique that Savulescu proposes be universally employed to produce designer babies. Savulescu is playing with fire here.
Cigarette smoke exposure is just one example of an environmental factor that could imprint genes. And epigenetic factors are not only predictive of physical diseases but also mental disorders.
One study showed that individuals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia were most likely to be smoking tobacco (70%) and were more nicotine dependent.
Getting back to the topic of controlling genes to produce moral behavior or intelligence, enzyme inhibitors (histone deacetylase inhibitors, such as the red wine molecule resveratrol) have been shown to control epigenetic programming associated with the regulation of thinking and behavior and potentially may be therapeutic for treatment of mood disorders such as bipolar disorder or major depression.
(Bipolar disorder is a condition characterized by mood swings from very good to deep depression. These “mood swings” can be very rapid.)
Schizophrenia, autism and depression are not inherited by Mendelian patterns. Nor are schizophrenia or bipolar disorder inherited by gene mutations. Epigenetics may constitute the basis of programming for these mental disorders.
Low folic acid (vitamin B9) levels correlate with coincident schizophrenia and spina bifida birth defects reported in the Dutch hunger winter and in seasonal fluctuations among patients with schizophrenia and spina bifida.
Excessively high levels of homocysteine are more than 5 times likely among depressed individuals with bipolar disorder and are a far more prevalent factor than genetics. B vitamins reduce homocysteine levels.
Elevated homocysteine, an undesirable blood protein, and relatively low folic acid levels (within the normal range but low) are associated with changes in the white matter of the brain.
High homocysteine levels and low folic acid and vitamin B12 levels may be a risk factor for development of bipolar disorder.
An example of therapeutic epigenetics might be the provision of nutrients to subjects who exhibit behavior characterized as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Five out of six randomized controlled trials with fish oil (EPA) have shown positive effects in schizophrenia, and 4 of 6 were favorable in depression and bipolar disorders. Folic acid and fish oil might be important in both the etiology and severity of at least some psychiatric diseases. These appear to be examples of epigenetic modified mental disorders.
Folic acid is helpful in cases of bipolar disorder even when successfully treated with valproate, the common drug of choice.
It is also possible to develop mania (bipolar disorder) due to a vitamin B12 deficiency even though no symptoms of a frank deficiency (pernicious anemia) are apparent. Vitamin B12 supplementation can resolve the problem.
The promise of nutritional epigenetics is that it will help point the way in which nutrition directly and immediately affects our library of genes.
Epigenetic mechanisms are now thought to play a major role in the pathogenesis of the major psychoses (schizophrenia and bipolar disorder). Three classes of drugs that influence the epigenome, histone deacetylase inhibitors, DNA methylation inhibitors and drugs that target microRNA are being investigated.
It may be possible to use a DNA methylation/saliva test to detect schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Regarding another behavioral syndrome, simple genetic associations have not been proven sufficient to explain attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Rather, contributions of genetic and environmental factors provide insights into this condition.
You may be surprised to learn humanity is already producing genetically-modified babies. These are unplanned versus Savulescu’s planned gene modifications.
It turns out, ubiquitous chemicals in our environment expose mothers and their unborn offspring to undesirable epigenetic alterations, obvious changes that are observed in human populations, such as obesity, premature puberty, childhood diseases (asthma, allergy), and learning problems (autism, ADHD). Humanity is being negatively re-programmed as I write this report.
While chemicals that human embryos are exposed to in the womb are given a clean bill of health because they don’t induce gene mutations in the animal lab, this doesn’t mean they are genetically non-problematic. A variety of low-dose toxins, particularly when given alone and found to be safe in animal studies, may induce undesirable epigenetic changes, particularly when combined with other chemicals. This serves to say whatever screening is being done to protect babies in the human womb does not consider the combined effects of multiple low-dose epigenetic toxicity.
Probably the most studied chemical for epigenetic effects in the womb is bisphenol A, a hormone-like chemical that is used in a wide number of products from canned foods, ink for cash register tapes and (of all things) baby bottles. Researchers conclude, based upon animal studies, “that in utero and early after-birth exposure to this compound may produce a broad range of epigenetic-controlled adverse effects, including impaired brain development, sexual differentiation, behavior, and immune function, which could extend to future generations.”
Consider these facts about bisphenol A:
Foods genetically modified to tolerate herbicides are passing herbicidal molecules on to women, which could induce epigenetic changes, said a recent report that shocked toxicologists.
Drug molecules may be epigentically toxic. Use of antidepressants during pregnancy has been linked to lung disorders in offspring later in life.
Certain food additives, namely aspartame (sweetener) and monosodium glutamate (taste enhancer) may induce additive or even synergistic adverse “excito-toxic” effects on brain cells of embryos in the womb. The offspring of lab rats become obese after being exposed to MSG.
Of great concern are prematurely-born infants who are most at risk to develop abnormal behavior problems later in life. Exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in the neonatal ward are of troublesome. A wide range of these chemicals are found in neonatal intensive care units: (1) diethylhexyl phthalates (a plasticizer commonly found in intravenous tubing/bags and other products); (2) bisphenol A (commonly found in the lining of baby formula cans); (3) personal care products used in the NICU; (4) cleaning, sterilants, and disinfectants; and (5) mercury. The very place where these premature infants are cared for is a haven for gene-toxic chemicals.
The impact of chemicals found in the uterus upon the physical and mental health of newborns is now widely being discussed. The Food & Drug Administration has embarked upon a policy where these gene-toxic chemicals are safe until proven otherwise, rather than the other way around.
While most people would negatively respond to the question of whether to proceed with genetically enhanced babies, what we already have in developed countries is a generation of genetically impaired infants who may unwittingly pass on their epigenetically imprinted faults to their offspring. However, this does not give license to move ahead with Savulescu’s forced genetic engineering scheme.
As I have documented earlier in this report, some if not all of these epigenetically-imprinted alterations can be quieted or erased with the use of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, herbs).
Any suggestion that government health authorities begin to properly fortify foods with these nutrient antidotes may rile libertarians, but no need to worry. Government is working in lock-step with commercial interests in healthcare. Proper food fortification will predictably never happen, at least not in this generation.
Government health agencies drug their feet for years, allowing thousands of birth defects to occur before fortifying the diet with folic acid to prevent cases of spina bifida and anencephaly.
Even if government health authorities do act like they are interested in nutritional medicine, they will predictably do what they have done for years – install paltry nutrient intake levels that guarantee there will be plenty of disease to treat. Modern medicine will consider all of these physical and mental disorders as if they are drug deficiencies, not nutrient deficiencies.
Dr. Godfrey P. Oakley Jr. has been on a decades-long crusade to urge federal health authorities to fortify foods with nutrients. Dr. Oakley writes there was unambiguous evidence for folic acid food fortification since 1991 yet it took the FDA till 1998 to require vitamin fortification in foods.
Dr. Oakley also advocates vitamin B12 fortification for the same purpose and says this mandate is also long overdue.
Dr. Oakley explains “how difficult it is to get prevention policy implemented, even when the scientific evidence is compelling.” On a worldwide level he says “inaction or inappropriate actions of food regulatory bodies in so many countries means that only 10% of folic-acid-preventable spina bifida is actually being prevented–a serious failure of public health policy.”
On a positive note, folic acid food fortification has also begun to reduce the incidence of some childhood cancers.
There is still a long way to go. Shortages of folic acid are linked to emotional problems in children. There is also evidence that very young infants are irritable and cry more often when their mothers are deficient in vitamin B12. Low maternal levels of folic acid have now been linked with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The use of folic acid supplements in early pregnancy is associated with reduced mental health problems in children.
The lessons are clear. Properly dosed vitamins favorably regulate genes. No exotic gene therapy is required. Vitamin pills cost pennies. Savulescu’s campaign to genetically alter embryos in a lab dish to produce mentally improved children is not only impractical and unaffordable, but also epigenetically problematic and suggestive of fascism in medicine. Make your own genetically optimized babies.
Restore natural gene functioning in your children and protect against toxic chemicals by using vitamins, not mind-altering drugs. Emphasis should be on proper maternal nutrition and breast feeding rather than supplementing an infant’s diet. The diet is not expected to provide sufficient nutrients during pregnancy and breast feeding. Mothers must replace nutrients lost during pregnancy and lactation. Low-dose vitamins can be added to formula if needed. B vitamins, vitamins C & D and omega-3 oils are recommended for growing children living in developed countries. Zinc, iron and vitamin A may additionally be needed in undeveloped lands.