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A baby born in England recently was chosen in the embryonic stage to be free of a gene linked with certain types of cancer.
"This little girl will not face the specter of developing this genetic form of breast cancer or ovarian cancer in her adult life," said Paul Serhal, medical director of the assisted conception unit at University College hospital, London.
The case is not the first of its kind.
In the United States, a man with an 50 percent chance of passing on a gene for deadly colon cancer used the technique, too. He and his wife had embryos screened prior to implanting one in her womb, resulting in a daughter that won't get the disease.
The British woman, who has remained anonymous, made the decision in June to undergo screening of 11 embryos, each three days old, because her husband's female relatives suffered cancers, according to The Guardian. "We felt that, if there was a possibility of eliminating this for our children, then that was a route we had to go down," she said at the time.
The same genetic testing, called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), has been used to test for inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease, life-shortening diseases known to be certainly acquired by those carrying a single gene. What's new in this case is that the gene tested for, called BRCA1, does not inevitably lead to cancer in someone who carries it and if the cancers do develop they are potentially treatable.
Women who carry the BRCA1 gene have an 80 percent chance of developing breast cancer and a 60 per cent chance of developing ovarian cancer during their lifetime. They also have a 50 percent chance of passing the gene on to each of their children.
The events might presage other screenings designed to create designer babies based on gender, IQ or athletic ability, some ethicists fear.
"There are many complex issues to take into account and the decision will finally come down to an individual's personal ethics," said Kath McLachlan, a clinical nurse specialist at the charity Breast Cancer Care.
Some fear the worst if laws are not crafted to corral the burgeoning field of "reprogenetics," as it is called — combining reproductive technologies with genetic screening.
"If misapplied, [these technologies] would exacerbate existing inequalities and reinforce existing modes of discrimination ... the development and commercial marketing of human genetic modification would likely spark a techno-eugenic rat-race," Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society. "Even parents opposed to manipulating their children's genes would feel compelled to participate in this race, lest their offspring be left behind."
The polar opposite argument is made by Dartmouth College ethics professor Ronald M. Green, who envisions a nearly disease-free future in which the information gleaned from reprogenetics allows genes to be tweaked, producing healthier humans without discarding embryos. "Why not improve our genome?" Green asks.
A report last year in the journal Nature predicted a host of changes to human fertility technology in 30 years time: Artificial wombs and experiments on human embryos grown in the lab will be commonplace, several scientists said. With embryos grown in labs, mutations could be corrected and improvements could be engineered. The same researcher said there would be no designer babies, however, because no single gene is that predictive of a perfect child.
Meanwhile, the British mother and daughter are said to be doing well.
Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.