Rogue IVF clinics offering to screen embryos for higher education and income earning potential

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

It's natural to want to give your baby the best chance in life. But a new scientific paper has revealed some IVF companies are taking this to extremes in an ethical grey zone for embryo selection.

The joint study, from researchers at the Universities of California, Southern California and Queensland, found that some clinics are promising they can detect embryos more likely to obtain high levels of education, be high income earners and have high 'cognitive abilities'. 

Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers say this opens up a worrying ethical dilemma that could alter population demographics. 

The clinics in question were found to spruik their ability to predict an embryo's chance of professional success based on their polygenic scores (ESPS), a measure of a combination of genetic factors usually reserved for the screening of serious genetic conditions, such as cystic fibrosis. 

Researchers found some companies were also offering would-be-parents embryo selection based on their risk assessment for developing diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, idiopathic short stature and intellectual disability. 

However they caution these can not be accurately detected in embryos, labelling the trend towards 'eliminating' less desirable traits in the population as 'deeply concerning'.

At least one clinic was found to be screening for non-clinical traits, such as the education level, while another had flagged the potential for the technology to predict skin colour in the future. 

Not only is the technology unlikely to detect these traits as described, researchers said it could lead to 'unintended' consequences, saying focusing am embryo may score high on one ESPS factor, but low on another.

"For example, if an embryo is selected on the basis of the polygenic score for educational attainment, the risk of bipolar disorder is increased by 16 per cent from an absolute risk of 1.0 per cent to 1.16 per cent," they said.

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"The vast majority of relationships between genetic variants and traits are not yet known — and we will never know all of them. Furthermore, as polygenic scores improve and reproductive technology advances, increasing the expected gains of ESPS, the magnitude of its unintended consequences may also increase."

The authors said their findings showed there was a need for an 'urgent, society-wide conversation' around the use of ESPS in embryo selection, saying as the technology improves the clinical costs will drop and its use will become more widespread. 

And more regulation was needed to ensure it was being used ethically, to lessen the chance of genetic conditions, rather than increasing the chance of desirable traits. 

"At least one company is already offering ESPS for non-clinical traits. Historical eugenic policies that sought to eliminate people deemed 'feebleminded' or otherwise socially 'unfit' make embryo selection for educational attainment, income, intelligence, and related traits deeply concerning," they said.

"Another very worrisome use of ESPS would be the selection of traits on the basis of social constructs of race, such as skin pigmentation, hair colour, or facial features."

One company avoiding the use of embryo selection based on ESPS is IVF and fertility company Genea.

Scientific Director Steven McArthur said the practice had no clinical basis and it had not been proven to have any benefit for clients. Rather, Genea screen only for serious medical conditions, within ethical guidelines. 

"There is no clinical basis for the provision of ESPS and no evidence that this method, in any way is beneficial in either supporting patients achieving a pregnancy or determining the health of a prospective baby," he said.

"With the guidance of an independent ethics committee, Genea offers pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to patients at risk of passing on serious disease to their children.

"PGD is clinically proven and is only conducted when patients are referred by an independent medical practitioner and there is a known genetic risk, Genea is then able to supply patients with an actual diagnosis of their embryo."