Genes R US — Fetal genome sequencing and genetically engineered children — Take 2
Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 5:00 pm
Last weekend my husband and I were in New York City for a pro life conference (Great Turnaround.com).
Pressed to write my weekly column in half the usual time, I am grateful to the columnist, Tom Purcell, for providing this week’s topic. Mr. Purcell’s column on genetically engineered children appeared on Page 4 in the Aug. 24 edition of The Messenger (http://bit.ly/Njb7LD).
For those readers not in the genetic “know,” which includes the majority of Tom’s readership, it could be hard for them to evaluate the scientific worthiness that underpins his satire on genetically engineered children.
Are designer children really on their way? What is fact and what is fiction? First a roadmap...
The earliest evidence of fetal DNA circulating in a pregnant mother’s blood goes way back to 1948. By the early 1990s, it was well-known that some non-cellular DNA from the fetus is present in the mother’s blood while she carries the child.
Over the last two years using a tiny amount of the mother’s blood and in some cases a sample of saliva from the father, three different research groups have been able to sequence the whole genome of the fetus or at least the exome (which contains only the genes) using different methods with about 98 percent accuracy. It is not cheap or easy yet — but it is possible.
Two groups went public with their approaches this summer. One team, from University of Washington, published their results in the Journal Science of Translational Medicine and a separate team of Stanford scientists published their results in the journal Nature.
The goal was to develop a non-invasive method that could be used to identify whether the fetus had a known serious genetic defect carried by one of the parents. There are some genetic defects that can be treated successfully in the womb.
In none of the papers was the goal to pick hair color, eye color or intelligence of the child. Nevertheless, the news media “went to Galactica” with the news. Fear sells.
Scientists are far away from being able to tweak genes to advance intelligence or athletic prowess. Most traits involve dozens of genes, many still unknown. Since different genetic instructions can be read from the left and from the right, tweaking with genes can have dire unintended consequences, too.
Since the 1920s, the invasive process of amniocentesis has been used to check for very specific genetic anomalies. The most common test is for Down’s syndrome, where there is an extra copy of all or part of chromosome 21. Over time, the use of this test, even though it carried the risk of possible miscarriage, became a standard offering to older mothers.
Wanting the perfect child is not new. Over half of the parents, who find out that their fetus has Down’s syndrome, abort their child.
The nervous marriage of science and satire requires a high level of expertise in the audience targeted to consume the humor. Satire is dangerous in molecular genetics. Indeed many health-care providers are not comfortable with these molecular genetics let alone the average person.
Fetal genetic testing places us at the crossroads of clinical and ethical challenges. However, this is not new territory. We have been there for many years with legalized abortion for Down’s syndrome, gender selection, rape or any reason at all.
Some shifts in culture are hardly noted, even decades later. Consider this example.
Up until 1930 every Christian denomination in the world thought artificial contraception was wrong. Best read that again. What was once a sin is pretty much a non-moral issue for many in Christian cultures, including in the Bible Belt.
Certainly the definition of marriage and the morality of abortion are hot buttons in our culture. How will my great, great grandchildren’s generation view these issues?
I have no doubt that my great grandchildren will have more genomic data at their fingertips should they elect prenatal testing. However, I do not believe that genetically designed children will be an issue in our lifetimes — if ever. What we know about human traits is still so very small in the big picture.
A culture’s values are reflected in their laws. In the United States and many other nations, the life of the pregnant mother is valued much more highly than the child in her womb. The life of the fetus is legally terminated whether the child is genetically acceptable or not.
Science is not the issue here; rather it is the philosophy of who owns human life.
Nancy@NancyMiller Latimer.com has worked in scientific research and development for 27 years. She blogs at NeuronalBeauty.BlogSpot.com. Published in The Messenger 8.29.12
Genes R US — Fetal genome sequencing and genetically engineered children — T