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What is a designer baby?

Advanced reproductive technologies allow parents and doctors to screen embryos for genetic disorders and select healthy embryos.

In-vitro fertilisation or IVF
The fear is that in the future we may be able to use genetic technologies to modify embryos and choose desirable or cosmetic characteristics. Designer babies is a term used by journalists to describe this frightening scenario. It is not a term used by scientists.

Advanced reproductive techniques involve using InVitro Fertilisation or IVF to fertilise eggs with sperm in 'test-tubes' outside the mother's body in a laboratory. These techniques allow doctors and parents to reduce the chance that a child will be born with a genetic disorder. At the moment it is only legally possible to carry out two types of advanced reproductive technologies on humans. The first involves choosing the type of sperm that will fertilise an egg: this is used to determine the sex and the genes of the baby. The second technique screens embryos for a genetic disease: only selected embryos are implanted back into the mother's womb. This is called Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD).

Recently scientists have made rapid advances in our knowledge of the human genome and in our ability to modify and change genes. In the future we may be able to "cure" geneticy diseases in embryos by replacing faulty sections of DNA with healthy DNA. This is called germ line therapy and is carried out on an egg, sperm or a tiny fertilised embryo. Such therapy has successfully been done on animal embryos but at present it is illegal to do this in humans.

However, it is legal to modify the faulty genes in the cells of a grown child or an adult to cure diseases like cystic fibrosis - this is called body cell gene therapy.

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