June 18, 2006

New embryo gene screening will detect disease - ethical debate - news comment

I did an ITN 6pm news interview today on this story.

Medicine is developing faster than most people realise, raising many profound ethical challenges. This new IVF technique will allow in theory screening of a pre-implantation embryo for many thousands of different genes which have been linked to disease.

The same process could be used in future to allow selection on the basis of other characteristics such as inherited personality traits. Yes they exist. We have already found strong links between certain genes and extreme shyness, and it is well known that violent criminals are more likely to have specific genetic profiles than the general population. We also know there are genes which make addictive behaviour more likely.

Here are some interesting gene links:

FOXP2 gene is vital to language and speech development
17CREB genes are all needed for learning and memory.

Vasopressin receptor gene on chromosme 12 – huge effect on mating and pair binding in prairie voles.

Low monoamine oxidase A activity on X chromosome strongly linked to violent, antisocial or criminal behaviour.

Gene for obesity: 6% have MC4R gene.

Gene linked to serotonin production strongly linked to depression. CREB1 carries 80% risk of depression – in women.

So.... I am concerned about the kind of society we could see in the future, since screening of the unborn already happens on a millions a year scale with terribly destructive results - hunting out and destroying female fetuses in India and to a smaller extent in China. We know that many parents like controlling the characteristics of future children, and will pay to do so.

However as a reality check, the new technique announced today will only work with IVF which is a very inneficient and expensive way to produce babies and the application is likely to be only a search for major genetic abnormalities.

Embryo test cuts disease risk: "Thousands of women at risk of giving birth to sick children could be offered hope from a new technique to ensure their babies are free of genetic disorders.
It can screen out the genes for common disorders such as cystic fibrosis which is carried by 1-in-25 Britons and affects over 7,000 children.
So far the test has been used on seven women, five of whom are now pregnant.
The procedure is being hailed as a big advance and will lead to a radical shift in the way couples at risk of passing on certain diseases are treated."