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Genetic engineering topic at Saint Mary's Hall ‘Issues Day'

Genetic engineering topic at Saint Mary's Hall ‘Issues Day'

Students at Saint Mary's Hall learned about the ongoing debate over so-called designer babies and genetic engineering from a panel of national experts, including Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, a pioneer in the controversial field.

The topic was featured during Issues Day at the private, college preparatory school.

Steinberg is the medical director for The Fertility Institutes, with offices in Los Angeles, New York, Guadalajara, Mexico City and Bombay, India.

He said not only can he guarantee a baby's eyes and hair color, the technology he's developed will help prevent newborns from inheriting genetic disorders from their families.

Steinberg said mothers may ask, "I'd like to have a little girl, but I want to make sure she doesn't get that breast cancer gene. Can we do it?"

He said he tells them, "We absolutely can do it."

Steinberg said he works closely with the UT Health Science Center's ongoing stem cell research.

"They are the tools to correct genetic problems before they manifest themselves," Steinberg said.

He said initially, his research diagnosed three different genetic diseases-- that number is now more than 2,000.

Steinberg said he expects as word gets out, more families will be asking for information.

He said the reaction was much the same when he discovered the gene for eye color during his early work with albino patients.

However, Steinberg said predisposed conditions can be an emotional dilemma for parents considering whether to have a child.

"Should I withhold that information from those patients if they're asking me? I say, as a physician, I can't do that," he said.

Still, religious and ethical questions remain.

"The value lies in the use. How it is being used, the intention, the motives," said Linda MacDonald Glenn, a bioethicist, attorney and professor from San Jose, Calif., who also was on the panel with Steinberg.

"Like so many technologies, genetic engineering could be used for tremendous good or it could be used for tremendous evil," she said.

Asked what would God think of designer babies, Dr. Ron Epstein said he didn't have a direct line to God.

"So I can't say," he said.

But, the professor emeritus of Asian and comparative religion and philosophy said, the pervasive concern is "irreversible changes in our nature as human beings might interfere with our spiritual potential."

Still, Epstein said, "If we apply social wisdom to genetic engineering, everything will be OK."