Science blog

06 September 2013

Selecting, not perfecting?

In this week’s blog post we provide a preview of October’s TalkScience@BL which will focus on genetic testing in assisted reproduction and the many opportunities and challenges it raises

Since the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978, the demand for fertility treatment has exploded. Now, over 17,000 IVF babies are born every year in the UK and account for 2% of total births.

In the last twenty years, pre-implantation genetic testing has allowed patients to test the embryos produced through IVF to ensure that only those that are free of a specific disorder, such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anaemia, are implanted into the mother’s womb. Such testing has been one of the most contentious developments in the field of IVF and medical ethics.

For prospective parents who are carriers of a faulty gene, developments in genetic testing have been hailed as miraculous as they allow them to avoid having children with life threatening conditions. It is now also possible to test for embryos that might be susceptible to diseases that occur later in life, such as Huntington’s or breast cancer. On the other side of the coin, some anticipate that genetic testing could lead to specific traits being screened out and this possibility has sparked heated debate on the rights of people with disabilities.

These new technologies may allow us to select a desired embryo - but how far should we be prepared to go in the pursuit of perfection?

These are some of the issues that we will be debating in our next TalkScience event: “Genetic testing in assisted reproduction: Selecting, not perfecting?”

Recently, the UK’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, launched a review into the genetic disorders that it licenses for testing. The review is timely given that medical treatments have improved significantly since these specific conditions were licensed. So, how should we decide what conditions should be licensed? When should a disorder be considered serious enough to warrant screening? 

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An egg being artificially fertilised in IVF. Copyright

To add to the mix, UK regulations surrounding genetic testing are some of the most stringent in the world. For example, parents are permitted to choose the sex of their baby only to avoid the inheritance of a serious gender-linked condition, such as muscular dystrophy. However, in some countries - Cyprus is one example - selection on the basis of gender is allowed for ‘family balancing’. Could red tape be stifling research into future developments? Will the UK’s tight controls simply lead to ‘reproductive tourism’, where patients are driven overseas for treatment in countries with more permissive regulations?

Critics of pre-implantation genetic testing have claimed that these new developments will open the floodgates to a generation of designer babies, engineered to have blonde hair or be musically gifted. But are these scenarios realistic scientific possibilities?

To discuss and debate these issues, we are pleased to have Dr Tom Shakespeare as our chair for the evening. Tom is Senior Lecturer in disability studies and medical sociology at UEA. Joining our expert panel we have Dr Joyce Harper (UCL Centre for Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis), Nick Meade (Genetic Alliance UK), Professor Rosamund Scott (Centre of Medical Law and Ethics, King’s College London), and Dr Alan Thornhill (Guy's Hospital Assisted Conception Unit), who will represent the range of views surrounding pre-implantation genetic testing and the future of assisted reproduction.

We hope that you’ll join us on the evening of 9th October at the British Library for what promises to be a lively debate. For more information and to book your place, click here.

Katie Howe


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