British researchers have developed a new technique that allows them to test embryos for any of 6000 different genetic diseases before they are implanted. The technique, called pre-implantation genetic haplotyping, takes a single cell from an 8-cell embryo and amplifies its DNA by a million times.
Currently, there are a couple of hundred genetic tests that can be used to identify specific broken genes in embryos. With PGH physicians don't need to know what the specific genetic problem is beforehand. They take DNA samples from family members who are free of the specific disease and those who are afflicted. The beauty of PGH is that it can, by comparing embryonic DNA with DNA from family members who carry the broken gene and those who don't, identify the chromosomes in embryos that carry the disease-causing gene. Parents can then choose not to implant those embryos.
The researchers report that five couples have used PGH to have children who are free of the genetic diseases that have afflicted their families for generations. Naturally, such biotech progress provokes expressions of concern from some people who are worried about the advent of "designer babies." One interesting exchange on this topic was reported by the Australian ABC News:
[T]he new test has sparked questions about the morality of creating disease free embryos.
Simone Aspis is from the Council of Disabled People.
"It may start off being for people with terminal conditions, but then it will move on to other less significant conditions," she said.
"It sends out a signal that people are worth less than other people, it sends out a signal that actually disabled people will be better off not alive."
Ms Barnes [from Britain's Cystic Fibrosis Trust] defended the use of the technique.
"We not talking about here, blue eyes or good sportsman, or people who are good at music," she said.
"We are talking about essential bodily functions. To deny this to families I think would be a great tragedy."
Professor Braude [who helped develop PGH] is resolute on the ethical question of designer babies.
"It is a step to designer babies for those people who've got genetic disease," he said.
"And what we're designing, if you like, or selecting for, is a baby that's not going to die.
"That's what they come to us about. People come along who've had dead babies, they've had children who were severely handicapped and they've said, please is there something we can do to avoid this happening again?
'And what we do is not change the embryo in any way, but they've already got embryos, some of which are affected and some aren't, and we just select those that aren't affected."
It's is a puzzle why some people believe that it is more moral to require parents to submit to nature's random genetic draw than to allow them access to biomedical techniques that enable them ensure the health of the children they choose to have.