The ethical debate of whether humanity should be able to tailor designer babies to be more intelligent has been raging for decades. However, regardless of your stance on the issue, the technology hasn’t been possible to make it reality. Until now. A new method of testing, first detailed in New Scientist can examine an embryo’s genes for intelligence. It might even be available in fertility clinics in the United States before long.
The firm behind the test, Genomic Prediction, says that it has developed a genetic screening test that can assess complex traits. For example, intelligence or the risk for some diseases, in IVF embryos. Despite the groundbreaking potential, the tests are yet to be used.
The company says that for intelligence screenings, the test will only be available for embryos likely to have mental disability. However, the same approach could easily be used in the future to identify embryos with genes linked to having a higher IQ. Genomic Prediction co-founder Stephen Hsu says, “I think people are going to demand that. If we don’t do it, some other company will.”
More simple genomic tests have been available to IVF parents for several years. For example, parents have the option to test an embryo for cystic fibrosis and select one that does not carry the gene for the condition. Other disorders caused by chromosomal disorders, like Down’s syndrome, are also able to be tested for.
However, the majority of medical conditions are influenced by hundreds of genes, not just one. This makes it impossible to screen embryos with high risk for diseases like heart disease or depression. This is also true for intelligence screenings. Recently, it became possible to determine a person’s likelihood for having these conditions by analyzing many DNA regions at once and calculating something known as a polygenic risk score.
Genomic Prediction is the first company to offer polygenic risk score testing for embryos instead of adults. They are mainly marketing the test as a way to screen out embryos with serious medical conditions. However, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding their decision to include intelligence screening in the test as well.
“If we consider inclusion and diversity to be a measure of societal progress, then IQ screening proposals are unethical,” says Lynn Murray of Don’t Screen Us Out, a group that campaigns against prenatal testing for Down’s syndrome. “There must be wide consultation.”
Due to ethical concerns, Genomic Prediction won’t help parents choose embryos based on IQ scores or pure measures of intelligence. However, their offering is likely to be the spark that causes other firms to offer testing based on high IQ scores alone.
Peter Visscher of the University of Queensland, Australia calls the idea of predicting embryos with high intelligence, “repugnant, but technologically feasible.”
There is sure to be controversy surrounding this new test in the days to come. As couples in IVF clinics around the United States are presented the option to use the test, it will be interesting to see if society accepts the notion or rejects it.