A new genetic test can screen embryos for low intelligence: is this a good or a bad thing?

6 May 2019

A new genetic test is on the horizon in the US that enables people having IVF to screen out embryos likely to have a low IQ or high disease risk. The test screens many different genes in the embryo and produces a polygenic risk score, which predicts the embryo’s future traits.

Until now, genetic tests during IVF have been more limited. They have only identified certain genes, like Cystic Fibrosis, or certain chromosomal abnormalities like Down’s Syndrome, enabling fertility patients to select an embryo that does not carry the condition.

The firm that developed the new genetic test, Genomic Prediction, says it will only offer the test to screen out embryos likely to have a ‘mental disability’. However, the technique could in future be used to test for embryos that are more likely to have a high IQ. At present the test cannot accurately predict an embryo’s IQ, but it is claimed it can predict whether there is a high chance the embryo will have an IQ 25 points below average.

The test can also provide a polygenic risk score for a variety of conditions including heart disease, breast cancer, type 1 and type 2 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. In contrast with the US, polygenic screening of embryos is not permitted in the UK and embryos can only be screened for simpler genetic conditions.

Supporters of this new assisted reproductive and genetic technology say it gives fertility patients the chance to give their prospective children a better chance of living a long and healthy life. However, concerns have also been raised about its capacity to undermine inclusion and diversity within society and lead to genetic discrimination.

It currently remains to be seen what impact this new genetic test will have in practice. Fertility patients only have a finite number of embryos from which to choose from and this is a limiting factor. There is also presently an element of uncertainty around polygenic scores given the limited availability of genetic samples, although it is claimed they will become more accurate as we expand our knowledge and experience of genetic science. This test also focuses on the genetic composition of the embryo and it does not also assess environmental factors that will affect the child’s development and upbringing. Furthermore, this test only applies to those using assisted reproductive technology and not those conceiving naturally.

Advances in science and technology will continue to expand our knowledge and application of genomic medicine. It will without question increasingly raise challenging questions and issues that will influence our lives, reproductive decisions and futures. You can read more about genetic testing and the role of specialist fertility and family law advice in my blog entitled “Should I undergo genetic testing before having a family?”.

need an expert fertility lawyer or family lawyer? If you would like to discuss your situation or you require specialist fertility and family law advice and assistance please contact Louisa Ghevaert by email or by telephone +44 (0)20 7965 8399.


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