Years of research and large population studies led to the possibility of using human genetic data to assess the risk of various health conditions. The genetic risk is usually summarized in the form of “polygenic score” for disorders influenced by a large number of genes. Although it is not yet clear how it will be used in clinical practice, companies like 23andMe and Nebula Genomics already offer genetic risk scores for certain traits, e.g., body mass index. Prediction tests enable individuals with high risk to change their habits in time to prevent certain illnesses. This kind of foresight gives a lot of promise to these tests.
However, what if the same tests were used to select embryos with better scores and lower risks compared to others? And what if we started looking for traits like intelligence or educational achievements?
In 2019, Genomic Prediction, a company that conducts embryo DNA analysis during IVF cycles, started marketing its embryo prediction tests for disorders like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Many scientists are opposed to such practice due to the uncertainty and low predictability of the tests. Sociologists and economists express concerns about their possible impact on the future of human society. The European Society for Human Genetics called predictive genetic tests for embryos “unproven and unethical practice.” They believe that this procedure should be forbidden until the government creates a system to control and monitor this industry.
However, a number of recently published articles describe the usage of genetic data to even predict the chance of having a child with higher cognitive capabilities by analyzing embryo DNA. This news, logically, has triggered many scientific, political, and sociologic discussions. In February 2023, The MIT Technology Review wrote about the results of an opinion poll regarding this issue, which were published in the journal Science.
The poll, conducted by a group of scientists, examined social acceptance of the idea of using genetic prediction or even gene editing to increase the chance for better educational attainment. The survey involved 7,600 adults between the ages 18 and 54+.
“Would you probably use the following methods if it increased the chance your child could attend a top-100 university?”
And the “Yes” answers were as follows”:
The new poll, The MIT Technology Review notes, “compared people’s willingness to advance their children’s prospects in three ways: using SAT prep courses, embryo tests, and gene editing on embryos. It found some support even for the most radical option, genetic modification of children, which is prohibited in the US and many other countries. About 28% of those polled said they’d probably do that if it was safe.”
The MIT Technology Review quotes Shai Carmi, a geneticist and statistician at the Hebrew University in Israel, who studies embryo selection technology:
“These are important results. They support the existence of a gap between the generally negative attitudes of researchers and health professionals… and the attitudes of the general public.”
While the general public is understandably enthusiastic, the expert community tends to think that this industry is not quite ready. It is likely that overtime the professionals will become less skeptic, and amateurs even more eager to benefit from the new, promising techniques. We observed a similar situation with IVF. Before it was developed in the 1970s, most people were against “tube babies,” but today, it is an ordinary operation; only 6% of people are morally opposed to IVF today.
The bottom line is that the industry of using DNA data to select embryos with “better scores” will most probably grow and become widespread. It would be in all of our interest that a system to control and monitor this industry is set up as soon as possible.
Another important factor is overcoming the hurdles of excessive “political correctness”, which is preventing most geneticists from providing the new DNA selection techniques to consumers. On this point, The MIT Technology Review notes:
“Despite the relatively good performance of the “educational attainment” score, 23andMe does not offer these results to its customers. Just like Genomic Prediction, the embryo testing company…
Carmi says he doesn’t think it’s “much of a mystery” why intelligence predictions aren’t on offer:
“It’s controversial, draws negative attention, has limited utility and adds… possibly negative effects on other traits. It makes perfect sense not to offer it.”
Discussions about this technology persist. As we noted above, some scientists are strongly opposed to the commercial distribution of genetic prediction tests. They say that we can only know whether it works after decades of observation. On the other hand, scientists from genetic companies like Genomic Prediction claim that this technology is already working now; and the results from research published in Cell journal in 2019 show that concerns about social inequality that is supposed to emerge due to using genetic prediction tests are groundless.
An authentic article of our partner, Henome.com, a media project about human genome.
Based on The MIT Technology Review Article