March 2, 2009

LA Lab To Offer Parents-To-Be Designer Choices

The LA Fertility Institutes are offering prospective parents a controversial service that would allow them to select specific traits to be passed on to their offspring.

The clinic is operated by fertility expert Dr Jeff Steinberg. Steinberg was a pioneer of in vitro fertilization (IVF) "“ a process by which egg cells are fertilized by sperm outside of the womb "“ in the 1970s.

The clinic claims it has received about "half a dozen" requests for the trait-specific service which is being called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD.

Also referred to as "embryo screening," PGD has been previously used among infants to protect them against certain genetic preconditions that could leave them vulnerable to certain disorders.

PGD has long been criticized by experts who argue that it could be used to make unethical "social selections" in the future.

"It's technically feasible and it can be done," Mark Hughes, a pioneer of the PGD process and director of Genesis Genetics Institute, a large fertility laboratory in Detroit, told the Wall Street Journal. However, he adds that "no legitimate lab would get into it and, if they did, they'd be ostracized."

"This is cosmetic medicine," said Steinberg." Others are frightened by the criticism but we have no problems with it."

In the process of PGD, doctors take a cell from a three-day-old embryo for testing before it is put into the mother's womb.

Doctors then select an embryo free from rogue genes - or in this case an embryo with the desired physical traits such as blonde hair and blue eyes - to continue the pregnancy, and discard any others, according to BBC Health.

On its Web site, Fertility Institutes has announced the "pending availability" of available genetic tests.

"For the first time ever, patients having genetic screening for abnormal chromosome conditions in their embryos will be able to elect expanded testing that can greatly increase the odds of achieving a healthy pregnancy with a preselected choice of gender, eye color, hair color and complexion, along with screening for potentially lethal diseases, screening for cancer tendencies (breast, colon, pancreas, prostate) and more," the clinic's Web site reads.

"Not all patients will qualify for these tests and we make NO guarantees as to "Ëœperfect prediction' of things such as eye color or hair color."

"I would not say this is a dangerous road. It's an uncharted road," said Steinberg, adding: "it's time for everyone to pull their heads out of the sand."

"If it gets to the point where we can decide which gene or combination of genes are responsible for blue eyes or blonde hair, what are you going to do with all those other embryos that turn out like me to be ginger with green eyes?," Dr Gillian Lockwood, a UK fertility expert and member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' ethics committee told BBC Health.

Josephine Quintavalle of Comment on Reproductive Ethics said: "This is the inevitable slippery slope of a fertility process which results in many more embryos being created than can be implanted. Choices will always have to be made. Do you choose octuplets or the ones with the prettiest noses?"

A recent New York University School of Medicine survey of 999 people who sought genetic counseling found that a majority wanted prenatal genetic tests for the elimination of certain diseases. The survey found that 56 percent supported using them to counter blindness and 75 percent for mental retardation.

Additionally, 10 percent of respondents supported genetic testing for athletic ability, while another 10 percent backed its use for improved height.

"If we're going to produce children who are claimed to be superior because of their particular genes, we risk introducing new sources of discrimination" in society, Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a nonprofit public interest group in Oakland, Calif., told the Wall Street Journal.

Although the use of PGD is not allowed in many countries, there are currently 137 PGD clinics in the US, 42 percent of which offer gender-selection services, according to a survey taken by the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University.


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