I’m a big fan of the blogger, libertarian, and scientist Scott Alexander who runs the excellent AstralCodexTen substack. I’m no libertarian but I find his analysis hugely invigorating and he is eminently open-minded. If you read his blog, it’s also a great way of thinking about really important stuff in the not too distant future.
One of his more recent columns opens up a world I thought was still some way – designer babies. Now for the avoidance of all doubt, designer babies are not a new idea. It’s been kicking around in sci-fi nerd circles – which I admit I inhabit – for decades. Arguably its most impressive recent iteration was in Andrew Niccols wonderful 1997 film Gattaca with Ethan Hawke and Jude Law but you don’t need me to tell you the antecedents.
Anyway, we sci-fi nerds have assumed that this stuff is a long way off. The idea of careful selection at the in vitro stage sounds uncomplicated but in reality, it is all fearsomely difficult with no guarantee of success even if you could develop a scalable technology.
Or at least, that’s what I thought until I read a recent AstralCodexTen blog. You can see that piece HERE.
In reality, the technology behind this stuff is much, much closer than we think – and there are firms already out there taking baby steps (excuse the pun). The key transition technology seems to be based around in vitro fertilization, where a woman takes drugs that make her produce lots of eggs. Doctors extract the eggs and fertilize them with sperm from a partner or donor, producing lots of embryos. Hopefully at least one of the embryos looks healthy, and then the doctors implant it in the woman or a surrogate parent.
The key point here is that for many years we’ve had the technology to genetically test these embryos looking for Downs syndrome risks or other obvious chromosomal abnormalities. As Alexander reminds us, this is normal though not uncontroversial.
But the “most interesting traits aren’t chromosomal abnormalities or single genes. They’re polygenic, ie controlled by the interaction of thousands of genes. You need to record basically the entire genome and have a good idea what all of it is doing before you can predict these. Right now we’re at an inflection point where we can sort of do this for a few traits, and some companies are starting to apply this to the embryo selection process.”
Already there’s at least one company pitching to IVF patients the idea that if you are doing all the genomic testing why not choose an embryo for other traits. “So why not instead choose one in a way that halves your future kid’s risk of serious diseases? Of course, “worth it” depends on the price, which the company is kind of coy about, but an earlier version seems to have cost ~$1400 plus some extra per embryo, which is a fraction of overall IVF costs and pretty cheap for a US medical procedure.
“You’ll notice that all the traits being measured here are pretty serious medical conditions. In theory, you’re not supposed to use polygenic screening to produce designer babies. What about in practice? Screening companies will give you the raw data if you ask for it, so if you want to screen for an embryo with green eyes, all you need to do is find some third party algorithm that can screen genomes to figure out the baby’s eye color and plug in your data. Does anything like this exist? I don’t think so, but I think it would be trivial for a genetics PhD student to make.
“What about IQ? There are definitely scientists who have figured out how to do polygenic analyses to predict a modest amount of variation in IQ, though I don’t know if their algorithms are public, and they’re certainly not convenient for amateurs to use. If you had them, would they work? Gwern has done some calculations and finds that with ten embryos (a near-best-case scenario of what you’re likely to get from egg extraction) and modern (as of 2016) polygenic scoring technology, you could get on average +3 IQ points by implanting the smartest. If polygenic scoring technology reached the limits of its potential (might happen within a decade or two) you could get +9 IQ points. Embryos from the same parents only vary a certain amount in IQ, and about half of IQ variation is non-genetic, so you can’t work miracles with this …”
We have to be realistic here and accept that all this talk of selecting the ‘right’ embryos might end up being a damp squib. The prediction markets reckon designer babies and specialized embryo selection for traits are at least 15 years away.
Maybe but I wouldn’t take that bet.
I’d say we are under five years away. And here’s the big point. Once it starts in IVF – if it works – it will happen everywhere. There is no way of stopping this and putting this technology back in the test tube. I give the odds of regulators and ethicists stopping this t less than zero. We all might think it abhorrent but if its coming it will be the mother of gold rushes. The market will win and this stuff will shove the genomics revolution away from orphan diseases and complex biotech into the mass market.
On a side note, it’s nice to see that the “first polygenically screened baby was born last year to a family with a history of breast cancer, which screening + selection can make less likely. Her name was Aurea..”. More details HERE.
Sticking with the futuristic stuff, though a lot more near term, Numis reports that a fund is currently maneuvering to raise capital to invest in a diversified portfolio of hydrogen and complementary hydrogen focussed assets. It’s called HydrogenOne Capital Growth and it is seeking to raise £250m for a new closed-ended fund to be listed on the premium segment of the Main Market of the London SE, targeting NAV total returns of 10-15% pa over the medium term.
Here are the details from the fund’s team at Numis.
“Manager: The manager HydrogenOne Capital is a specialist investor in the clean hydrogen sector. The lead managers are Dr John Joseph Traynor and Richard Hulf. John has held a series of senior energy and banking sector positions including Executive Vice President at Royal Dutch Shell; Managing Director at Deutsche Bank, where he was the number one ranked analyst in European and Global oil & gas; Geologist at BP, in the North Sea, West Africa and Asia Pacific. Richard is a fund manager with corporate finance and engineering background. Richard has 30 years of experience in the Utilities and Energy sectors and is a Chartered Engineer, originally from Babcock Power and latterly Exxon. In addition, his financial experience spans stockbroking, corporate finance and fund management.
“Portfolio: The manager has identified 36 potential investments to comprise an illustrative portfolio. In a number of cases the manager has non-disclosure agreements in place, has conducted detailed due diligence and has made indicative non-binding offers.
“Cornerstone Investment: INEOS Energy has committed to a minimum cornerstone investment of £25m and has been granted co-investment rights over any additional capacity in projects identified. INEOS Energy also has the right to appoint a non-executive director to the Board.”
I am slightly ambivalent about this. I think the market opportunity here is absolutely huge, especially for heavy transportation and possibly home heating (though I have my doubts). I also think there’s huge investor interest and a growing pool of super-smart start-ups and tech scale-ups. So, it ticks the potential opportunity box.
But I’m not totally convinced that the technology really is scalable now.
I hear about hydrogen energy storage – for full disclosure, I sit as a NED on Gresham House Energy Storage fund – but when I see the practical engineering challenges I wince. My sense is that rather like electric battery cars a decade ago, this is one of those great technologies…for the 2030s. That said, for the sake of the planet, I hope I’m wrong though because we need multiple options.