ncreasingly sophisticated genetic tests make it possible for parents to choose their baby’s traits. Here are three ways babies are born to specifications. For just an extra few thousand dollars, women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) could one day choose to have a baby boy with perfect vision, an aptitude for sports and a virtual lock on avoiding colon cancer. Fertility clinics in the U.S. currently offer not only to screen for diseases, but also to choose gender. They are not yet offering any further customization, but that could change as genetic mapping gets faster and easier. Last year, a California company said it could screen for hair and skin color, but soon retracted the claim amid a firestorm of protest. (Research like this has prompted Pope Benedict to condemn “the obsessive search for the perfect child.”) The best screening test on the market is called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. PGD, developed to prevent births of children with severe disorders, screens chromosomes from one or two of an embryo’s cells for abnormalities.
Depending on the results, the IVF embryo is either implanted in the mother, donated for research or destroyed. Now, researchers at the privately run Genetics & IVF Institute in Virginia have developed a test called karyomapping. The new procedure compares the genetic maps of parents and embryos to detect 15,000 known genetic disorders. It could also be used to choose traits including intelligence or skin color. “The future of genetic screening will really depend on what people want,” Elizabeth Ginsburg, the former president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, says. “If that means creating so-called designer babies, we’re going to need a lot more regulation.” Three Ways Babies are Born to Specifications:
Savior Siblings: Parents with children who suffer from leukemia or anemia and who could benefit from stem cell treatment can order up a sibling with the right genetic material. DNA from an embryo is analyzed to find a human leukocyte antigen gene match between an embryo and the child. Nine months later, when the baby is born, the stem cells are retrieved from umbilical cord blood.
Pink or Blue: A 2006 survey conducted by the Genetics and Public Policy Center found almost half of U.S. fertility clinics offered non-disease-related sex selection through PGD embryo screening. A new technique in clinical trials may offer a less expensive method. Originally developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for use in cattle, the new method analyzes sperm instead of embryos and uses color and fluorescence to sort male chromosomes from larger female ones.
Disease-Free Guarantee: Parents with a family history of diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and muscular dystrophy have a significant chance of passing the gene mutation that causes the disease on to their children. PGD can screen embryos for those conditions. It can also screen for genes that don’t guarantee illness, but which are associated with higher risks of breast and colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
By Amber Angelle