Infertility is a common occurrence amongst couples these days. Such couples resort to in vitro fertilization that is IVF which has been around since 1978. Advances have been made in the field ever since and we have now reached a point where parents can not only choose the healthiest of the embryos that would most likely result in a pregnancy but they can also choose the color of their baby’s hair and eyes. However, claims are being made that parents can even choose the smartest or the tallest of their lot and can also choose to pick a disease-free future for their offspring. Vague and confusing? Let’s understand the procedure first.
A woman’s body is supposed to usually release one egg every month which may or may not be fertilized during the cycle. During an IVF procedure, a woman is given hormonal shots to release multiple eggs which are then introduced to the father’s sperm sample in a culture dish. On average, six eggs are released, which on fertilization by the sperm become embryos. Embryologists or clinicians are then faced with the task of checking the embryos for aneuploidies, i.e. abnormalities in the chromosomes which may cause a failed attempt to attach to the uterine wall, miscarriages or Down Syndrome. The embryos with the normal and healthiest chromosome structure are chosen to be transferred back to the woman’s uterus.
This selection of embryo is done on the embryos that have survived 3–5 days after fertilization and have reached the stage where they are called blastocysts. Generally, only one embryo is transferred back to avoid multiple pregnancies.
Along with testing for aneuploidy, another common test that is conducted on the embryos is Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, where the blastocysts are checked for a particular disease that runs in the family of the parents. The embryo that happens to carry the condition is eliminated from the batch.
Now, further to PGD, a startup company in New Jersey by the name Genomic Predictions have claimed that through another test they can detect the most commonly found diseases in such embryos and can even help detect the ones that may not be as intelligent or as tall as the average population, thus helping parents handpick the embryo that they want to be transferred. It would be like handing the parents a scorecard telling them about which of the common disease has been detected and to what extent it can affect the child’s well-being.
Founders of the company believe that the process could become so popular that even fertile couples would opt for it simply because it would allow them the opportunity to choose the smarter ones amongst their batch. Some parents would simply choose the procedure to avoid the risk of their offspring having the most common diseases like diabetes or some types of cancer.
But the major questions that arise are, in a batch of multiple embryos, what if all the embryos would have the likelihood of being affected by some disease? How would one choose if one of the embryos is high on IQ or would be taller than the average or would be both but would be at the risk of a disease? The DNA from the cells of the blastocysts is tested at thousands of genetic positions eliminating the most common conditions but what if the child would be affected by some disease that it has not been tested for?
It is practically impossible to test an embryo for every single disease that exists. IVF is a very expensive procedure in itself, how many parents would most likely be interested in the test where there is no guarantee that the child would turn out how they expect after the test. Chances are there could be no pregnancy at all if the embryo fails to attach to the uterine wall.
This process was first reported a couple of years back and no evidence suggests that a pregnancy has been initiated using such an embryo that has undergone this test. Even if there were, it would take almost two decades to verify it’s success, i.e. it would be after two decades that offsprings from the embryos would have matured and reached their full potential.
With so much uncertainty and no guarantee at all, how feasible is it to keep investing in such a procedure and to expect prospective parents to consider this additional test?