A new test can predict IVF embryos’ chances of having impaired intellectual function
Prospective parents undergoing IVF could soon be able to lower their chances of having a baby with so-called impaired intellectual function.
US genetic testing firm Genomic Prediction has developed tests which can indicate an embryo’s chances of developing certain diseases, including heart disease, breast cancer, type 1 and type 2 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. But it will also offer the option of rejecting embryos likely to have what it describes as a “mental disability”.
The tests haven’t been used yet, but the firm began talks in October 2018 with several IVF clinics in the US about the possibility of providing them.
Doesn’t genetic testing happen already?
Tests already exist for conditions caused by a single gene or a chromosome abnormality, such as Down’s syndrome or cystic fibrosis. Parents who are genetic carriers of the latter can select embryos that don’t carry the gene which causes it.
However, most medical conditions, along with intelligence, are influenced by hundreds of genes. Each of these has only a small influence, and only a small fraction of them have been identified. So, until very recently, scientists didn’t have the ability to assess an embryo’s DNA to that extent.
And it’s still far from an exact science. Genomic Prediction’s intelligence test can’t predict IQ, it can only indicate which embryos are likely to have an IQ of 75 or less. (The British Psychological Society defines an IQ of less than 70 as an “impairment of intellectual functioning”.) Embryos from the same parents are, of course, likely to all be reasonably similar in their posited intelligence.
In the UK, screening multiple genes in this way isn’t allowed – embryos can only be screened for simple genetic conditions.
What are the ethical concerns?
Simon Fishel, president of the Care Fertility Group clinics in the UK, told the New Scientist: “I take my hat off to what they’re doing. It’s a potential revolution.”
But Lynn Murray, a spokeswoman for Don’t Screen Us Out, a UK group which campaigns against testing unborn babies for Down’s syndrome, said: “If we consider inclusion and diversity to be a measure of societal progress, then IQ screening proposals are unethical.”
One major concern is that selecting for or against certain genes may well have unintended consequences, as genetic traits are often linked. For example, in 2018 the British Psychological Society reported on a study which indicated a link between creativity and mental health conditions like depression.
Genomic Prediction says it won’t help parents select embryos likely to have a high IQ. But cofounder Stephen Hsu added: “I think people are going to demand that. If we don’t do it, some other company will.”
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