In the wake of the recent controversy sparked by the supposed first ever genetically-edited humans, many have raised qualms about utilizing genetics to modify our species. However, genetically selected babies have already been readily available in the US and around the world for years, and a company is even hoping to now use the technology to select for intelligence.
The Stork Vs. The Geneticist
In 1977, the first human in-vitro fertilization (IVF) was carried out, and an entirely healthy baby was born. In the decades to follow, millions who couldn’t conceive naturally have benefited from the procedure, where the sperm is injected into the egg in a test tube.
However, the sequencing of the human genome, fully completed in 2003, opened up a whole new can of worms. We were know learning which sequences of DNA (which mutations) corresponded to fatal congenital diseases. Eliminating those mutations could mean saving millions of lives.
Today, DNA editing technology simply isn’t there year. But for years, many have been choosing to undergo preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), wherein IVF embryos are screened for mutations, and the healthiest one is implanted into the mother.
This technology has been especially valuable for those who are carriers of rare genetic mutations that they don’t wish to pass on to their progeny, or to mothers above 35 years old who have a greater risk of chromosomal nondisjunction disorders (like Down syndrome).
A Line In The Sand
Of course, PGD has not been without its critics. While curing deadly, congenital diseases is one thing, the possibility of modifying our children to our liking raises many ethical questions.
Where to draw the line has become a matter of fierce debate. For instance, Iceland’s campaign to eliminate Down syndrome (via fetal testing and abortion) has received criticism from many on the political right, including Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who have compared it to “eugenics” and called it “the death of humanity.”
On the other hand, there have been cases of deaf parents stacking their odds of having a deaf child, or dwarf parents looking to ensure dwarf children. While some see this as promulgating a disability, others consider that stance “able-ist.”
Although the above cases blur the line between health and disease, PGD has largely remained confined to preventing crippling hereditary illnesses. The technology could, however, allow interested parents to “choose” a child in their own image, of low stature or high intelligence in the not so distant future.
In the midst of this ongoing controversy, a US company called “Genomic Prediction” has developed a PGD test for low-intelligence.
While intelligence is based on a myriad of genes, the company believes they have identified a “risk score” that can predict if an embryo has a high risk of being below an IQ of 75, which counts as “intellectual disability.”
Parents could screen for, and thus eliminate, embryos with this increased risk of lower intelligence. The company has stressed “the test will not be used to aid parents in choosing high IQ embryos,” so it will only be used in eliminating the low IQ ones.
Nevertheless, many experts have expressed concerns. Geneticist Peter Visscher likened the test to “cloning a dead pet,” in that people would “pay hundred of thousands” without actually understanding what the technology does.
The test is likely to be approved and offered in the US, which has lax laws for PGD relative to European nations like the UK. IVF clinics in the US are allowed to offer sex selection of embryos, which many have argued is also unethical.
To Test Or Not To Test?
It is undeniable that PGD has saved countless lives from debilitating medical conditions. However, modifying children due to preference, not disease, is sometimes genetically equally easy, but ethically a very different beast. As the gene editing controversy has shown, some scientists may be eager to use push the boundaries of their research beyond what the public is prepared for. Of course, PGD does not permanently change the germ-line, as does gene editing, because it merely selects among genes already naturally available.
More research must be conducted to ensure that we fully understand the functions and implications of the genes we’re selecting for (and perhaps even editing). The question is whether it will be a genetically-selected cohort of “super-geniuses” who will be the ones doing the research.