Scientists, Nathan Treff, an in vitro fertilisation specialist, Stephen Hsu, vice president for research at Michigan State University, and Laurent Tellier, a Danish bioinformatician have come together to start Genomic Prediction, a company that is using computer models and DNA tests – to predict which IVF embryos will contain the trait they want to select for.

They have been able to develop the technology thanks to growing genetic data collected from large population studies. Most recently the UK released 500,000 records, which included 800,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms.

The more information, the more accurate the prediction technology becomes and can now identify genetic patterns in height, weight, skin tone and intelligence. The company have called it expanded pre-implantation genetic testing (ePGT).

“We believe it will become a standard part of the IVF process,” says Tellier. Although they say they will only predict on serious diseases, Hsu has a strong interest in genetic selection for superior intelligence and has both written and spoken about it.

Yet, technology accuracy is a major concern

Even if on average it is accurate, for individuals, there is no guarantee of pinpoint precision. Additionally, the environment plays as large a role on most traits as genes do, and they cannot be accounted for at embryo-stage.

“There is a high probability that you will get it wrong,” says Manuel Rivas, a professor at Stanford University who studies the genetics of Crohn’s disease. “If someone is using that information to make decisions about embryos, I don’t know what to make of it.”

Genomic Prediction is also limited in that its data is mostly from northern Europeans, meaning it cannot predict for any other race. Additionally, polygenic testing with only a few cells from the embryo can make it difficult to obtain a broad yet accurate view of a genome.

Could this be our future?: To permanently alter the genetic code of future generations is a constant ethical debate. Photo credit: Tim Lahan/Technology Review
Could this be our future?: To permanently alter the genetic code of future generations is a constant ethical debate. Photo credit: Tim Lahan/Technology Review

Designer babies are also "red flags"

Many are worried about it increasing disparity in society. Hsu himself predicts that the first people “to do IVF even though they don’t need IVF” will be “billionaires and Silicon Valley types”. Economic divisions could deepen between those who can afford IVF and those who cannot.

“These proposed applications raise social justice questions and put us at risk of reviving eugenics—controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of ‘desirable’ heritable characteristics. Who gets to decide what diversity looks like and who is valued?” Emily Smith Beitiks, disability researcher at the University of California, says.

Already a study conducted by the Genetics and Public Policy Centre at Johns Hopkins University in late 2016 and published in the Fertility and Sterility journal – about the statistics of testing embryos in America – found that almost one in ten tests was for gender selection.

Choosing can affect future human survival

Selection in this way can damage the gene pool. Genes fashionable in one generation can be harmful in the next. If all parents pick the same immunity for their children, collectively, humans may become more vulnerable.

Almost all genes affect the functionality of others and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to determine which genetic combination will produce the healthi¬est child. The best-known example of this is sickle cell anaemia.

Many parents also look to select against genes that have a very low correlation to a disease, or for genes that are linked to manageable diseases. Treff, himself a sufferer of type 1 diabetes says, “I remind my partners, ‘You know, if my parents had this test, I wouldn’t be here.’

Preventative medicine is the biggest argument in favour

It's reported that 7.9 million children each year are born with a serious birth defect that has a significant genetic contribution and selecting can permanently wipe out diseases caused by single mutations, such as Tay-Sachs.

Genomic Predictions for their part, plan to use the height prediction to deselect for dwarfism as it leads to physical and psychological disadvantages.

Despite the concern for inaccurate, a report in 2014, found that selecting an embryo without type 1 diabetes from a polygenic DNA score alone, was accurate. Banning use of such algorithms though could create a black market for those desperate to use it.

It comes down to personal choice, after all

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which represents fertility doctors and scientists, states that testing embryos enables the “reproductive liberty” of parents. Yet, whether this liberty gives rise to a utopian society remains to be seen.

However, many scientists are quick to note that designer babies are not possible because of gene complexity. Not knowing how they all work together makes it almost impossible to design a viable baby.

Some scientists see embryo selecting as no different to parents who are able to offer their children privileges growing up. “I don’t think testing for freckles or blond hair or musical aptitude is a morally bad thing to do,” says Arthur Caplan, director of the Centre for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. MIMS

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