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Genetic Testing: How Far is Too Far?

Late last year the term “designer babies” hit the news all over the country. The media began using this term to reference many speculations about what new genetic testing and gene editing technology would mean for the future of human development. And as scientists and policy makers gathered at a conference last December to discuss advances in technology, an ethics battle was also at play over How far is too far?

The real story here is the tremendous potential of gene editing to improve healthcare. The sidetrack to “designer babies” ­­­– a term the media clearly loves ­– is silly. Although scientists will never discuss the future in absolutes and say that something will NEVER happen, the likelihood of genetic modification to the degree that the public is envisioning when they refer to “designer babies” is low.

For example, height, eye color and intelligence are not due to a single gene. These are strands and strands of multiple genetic structures in an individual’s DNA. In addition, some character traits aren’t necessarily genetic at all and can be related to environmental conditions in early life instead. For example, several studies have shown that nutritional supplements in early childhood have a long-lasting effect on adolescent height.

All of this discussion, including the debates at the December conference among genetic scientists, stems from a combination of advances in assisted reproductive technologies such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)and preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) as well as the ongoing development of CRISPR, a gene editing technology that fixes genetic flaws by snipping out bad DNA and replacing it with a healthier, or more correct, genetic sequence.

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Incredible benefits of gene editing

As a reproductive endocrinologist working in the fascinating and ever-changing field of fertility, I’m excited by the advances in genetic research. I believe the benefits could be incredible, not only in fertility, but especially in other fields of medicine, such as cancer research. In dispute of some of the far-fetched stories about negative impacts this could have on our future generation, I believe that this could be a great tool for fighting fatal diseases. And I welcome the opportunity to continue working to prevent the next generation from inheriting debilitating and lethal diseases.

One of the ways that my colleagues and I at Frisco Institute for Reproductive Medicine (FIRM) do this is through PGD and PGS. PGD allows us to screen embryos for a specific known single-gene disorder, such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease. Whereas PGS allows us to screen for the correct amount of DNA to prevent disorders like Down syndrome. Once screened, the healthy and genetically normal embryos are transferred back to the intended mother through embryo transfer. This technology allows us to increase the odds of a viable pregnancy and a healthy child being born.

This technology should give us hope, not scare us about engineering humans. What if we could “cure” all embryos of a certain disorder, providing the parents with more options? This is the future of this type of research as most of us see it. The majority of the “designer baby” projections are skewed and largely unfounded.

As a final word, as scientific practices continue to improve and advance, we as physicians will continue to prioritize our duty to practice good judgement and self-regulation with new technologies. We bide by the Hippocratic Oath that entreats us to first “do no harm” when  taking care of patients, and that will never change.