Biology, Fundamentals

The DIY Genetic Testing and The Brave New World that Comes With It

parental genetics

With every new form of genetic testing comes a new controversy. One of the most recent controversies concerned the 23andMe saliva DNA test. The test was designed to give individual consumers information about their ancestry and any potential genetic health risks. Potentially, prospective parents could use the test to determine their parental genetics and identify health risks to a child they may have together. The U.K.’s the health regulatory agency recently approved its use despite the fact that the FDA had banned the company from marketing the test in the U.S.

The CEO of the company is Anne Wojcicki, former wife of Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google and reportedly one of the 18th richest people in the world. In the U.S., which does not have universal health care, one of the concerns was that the data from the test could be obtained by insurance companies, who would then raise their premiums or deny health care coverage based on the information. Another concern was whether customer data obtained by the company would be sold to other companies. Finally, most diseases are the result of a complex combination of genes and social and environmental interactions, which limits the potential of the test to accurately determine risk factors.

Another article discusses the controversy surrounding PDG, or preimplantation genetic diagnosis. This is a form of parental genetics testing available to women during the process of in vitro fertilization. Supporters of the test argue that detecting genetic abnormalities in the embryo before implantation reduces the risk of a child being born with a potentially deadly or crippling disease. The moral argument is that reducing human suffering is the right thing to do.

Opponents of parental genetics testing of embryos argue that physical limitations often contribute to making a person stronger in other ways, and that the world might be losing a valuable contribution. Another argument surrounding the use of the test concerns the concept of eugenics which refers to the improvement of the human race through parental genetics or “good breeding”. The word itself was coined by an ancient Greek slave society, a fact which illustrates the concerns of many people about the high potential for misuse of parental genetics testing technology for political purposes.

Another controversy surrounding parental genetics testing is the moral objection by many to the destruction of less than perfect embryos, as well as their use in conducting medical research. Many within the medical community argue that with the consent of the parents, it is not only moral to conduct research on unwanted embryos, but that such research provides potentially life-saving information which benefits all of humanity. For example, it may one day be possible to induce stem cells to form tissues and organs for those currently suffering and in need of a transplant.

Some have suggested in vitro fertilization using only one embryo rather than cultivating several, then implanting only the healthiest one based on parental genetics test results and freezing and storing the rest. There are several reasons for cultivating multiple embryos for the IVF process. Up to 80 percent of embryos transferred into the uterus fail to implant, often due to chromosomal abnormalities. Further, only about one third of IVF procedures result in a successful live birth. In countries with universal health care, the single embryo method could be used for several attempts. However, in the U.S. most insurance companies do not cover the process, which has an average cost of about $10,000 dollars.

One of the moral questions that form the basis of many arguments against the practice of medical research on human embryos is the question of when life begins. Medical research has determined that embryos don’t begin to form nervous systems until two weeks after conception. They are unable to experience pleasure or pain before sixteen weeks of gestation and don’t develop consciousness until twenty-four weeks. More than 50 percent of embryos die within eight weeks of conception through the natural occurrence of spontaneous abortion.

If embryos are persons, then 220 million people die each year as a result of spontaneous abortion, making it the leading cause of death in the world. Researchers argue that if this is the case, it would be their moral duty to conduct research that would reduce the number of such deaths. While the controversy is similar to that surrounding abortion, one article describes a very personal account of the differences between how society and the law view the two.

In some countries, including the U.K., the law requires that surplus embryos produced through the IVF process be destroyed d after a period of time. These laws indicate that embryos are not regarded as living persons by society, and there have been few protests against this issue compared to the issue of abortion. Ironically, frozen embryos are considered potential persons by their donors, some of whom oppose these laws because they want to ensure their ability to have the biological child of a beloved partner even in the event of their death. That ability is one of the miracles that parental genetic testing has made possible.

parental genetics
Unreachable Futures by David Goehring. Flickr CC2.0
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