As scientists announce a new ‘genetic MOT’ for IVF embryos that will test for almost any inherited medical condition, one fertility doctor asks: where do we draw the line?
The new technique, called karyomapping, checks the DNA of the embryo against samples taken from other family members to see if it has inherited any kind of defect.
It applies to IVF embryos that are created in a laboratory and then screened before being implanted into the mother’s womb, with the implication that ‘flawed’ embryos will be destroyed.
The researchers behind the discovery say that theirs is a “universal method” that will allow parents to test for far more genetic conditions than the few that are detectable at the moment.
But many fear that any method which screens out ‘defective’ embryos could lead to tests for a broader range of characteristics, like intelligence or looks.
Earlier this year a deaf couple sparked controversy by calling for the Bill to allow them to deliberately select a deaf child from embryos created by IVF.
Dr Mark Hamilton, chairman of the British Fertility Society, pointed out that this new test will raise ethical questions.
He said: “We can currently test for several hundred conditions, but the claim is that the spectrum of conditions which could be screened for is enormous.
“But obviously, the ethical question is, if you can screen for anything, where do you draw the line?”
Prof Alan Handyside, who developed the test, will have to apply to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for a licence to use it.
A spokeswoman from the HFEA said its licensing committee would be able to set conditions on what it could be used for.
The research has been announced just days after the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the House of Commons.
One of the most controversial things the Bill allows is the use of embryo screening techniques to deliberately select an embryo that will be able to provide donor tissue for a sick older brother or sister.
Even advocates of embryo screening like Prof Robert Winston are concerned. In May he said: “My first worry is the psychological risk to the saviour sibling.
“It’s an awful situation when you have to tell a child they were born to save another. We don’t yet know how that will turn out but the psychological damage could be profound.
“I’m also unhappy that saviour siblings could be put under undue pressure to give bone marrow or organs — in short used as a source of spare parts — to help a sick sibling survive.”