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By Birgit Herden
Is the genetic test coming soon after birth?
In the US, a company offers to test embryos for specific properties. The new methods of gene optimization make this possible. It is no longer just about diseases. Scary science fiction is slowly becoming reality.
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"I was so free and turned off all potentially harmful ailments," says the doctor, smiling reassuringly at the expectant parents. "Premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism and addiction. Tendency to violence, obesity ... "Stammering interrupts the young woman. She and her husband really wanted to exclude only serious illnesses. "You want the best possible start for your child," the doctor says to the two. "Do not forget, this kid is still yours. Only the best of you. They could conceive naturally a thousand times and never achieve such a result. "
The scene is from the movie "GATTACA", which describes a "not too distant future". Two classes of people - naturally conceived and gene-optimized - compete for the best jobs. An unfair, inhuman competition, so the viewer soon becomes clear.
Faster than expected science fiction seems to have become reality. Last Monday, Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have rewritten a human gene. He had promised seven pairs of parents to make their AI-bred children immune to HIV . According to previously unconfirmed statements, twin girls with altered genetic make-up were born in November, and another woman is said to be pregnant.
The Chinese used Crispr for this, the just five-year-old technique of gene editing. In contrast to older methods of genetic engineering, it can be used to very precisely describe the code of life. The targeted changes do not differ in principle from random mutations, as they occur naturally. Plant breeders in the EU therefore demand - so far in vain - exempting Crispr from the ban on genetic engineering.
What Europeans do not even tolerate with tomatoes , a Chinese researcher has now presumably done with human embryos. These human trials have caused horror worldwide, and continued work has now been banned by the Chinese Ministry of Science.
The alleged Crispr babies in China are probably not the most urgent problem. Largely unnoticed by the public, new methods of embryo selection are emerging in the US and China. The first companies whose genetic tests are no longer limited to rare hereditary factors are entering the market. Officially, this is about avoiding illness. But it seems only a matter of time before even a selection for intelligence is possible.
Genomic Prediction , based in North Brunswick, New Jersey, presented a new product at the annual American Society for Reproductive Medicine's annual meeting in October - genetic testing for embryos to test for predisposition to conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or breast cancer . In addition, the company also offers tests on dwarfism and "mental disability", a somewhat vague term that can be translated as "mental disability". The company, which was founded in May 2017, targets its fertility clinics offering preimplantation genetic diagnosis perform - this method is used to study the genome of embryos before they are implanted into their mothers. So far, it has been about the prevention of rare hereditary diseases , as it has been done under strict conditions for several years in Germany.
The new tests are not just aimed at rare diseases that are likely to erupt. They analyze predispositions based on hundreds or thousands of gene variants. Each of these gene variants - together with the lifestyle and environmental influences - has a tiny influence on whether a person will develop diabetes or heart attack during their lifetime. And they also affect properties that are not necessarily related to illness - such as height and intelligence.
"We have had many inquiries since October, both from IVF clinics and laboratories as well as from individuals wishing to have children," said Stephen Hsu, one of the three founders of Genomic Prediction, WELT AM SONNTAG. With Genomic Prediction's genetic testing, parents could sort outliers among their embryos, reducing the risk of a particularly unfavorable condition by five to tenfold in complex traits.
One could dismiss such statements as self-promotion of a businessman who wants to sell windy genetic tests. But Stephen Hsu is not anyone. Not only does the physicist hold a professorship at Michigan State University, but he is also part of the core team of the Cognitive Genomics Lab at the BGI in Shenzhen, the world's largest gene research center. The project was launched in 2011 to explore the relationship between genes and intelligence. It is headed by the Danish bioinformatician Laurent Tellier, who is also one of the three founders of Genomic Prediction. The stated goal: to explore the genetic basis of intelligence.
About half of the genetic wealth of human beings is undisputed today. However, it is not based on one gene, but on thousands of gene variants. At present, several working groups worldwide are busy tracking down these variants. They sequence the genomes of many people and compare them with the help of enormous computing power. The biggest success of this search so far this year was an international research consortium, which found 1271 genetic alterations in the genetic material on the basis of 1.1 million examined Europeans that control the intelligence. If one summarizes the involvement of all these genes, then one can calculate a so-called polygenic score and predict from it the IQ. And the psychologists do not even have to agree on how important the intelligence quotient is for school success and what characteristics are also important for it. Based on the genetic differences found so far, scientists can even account for around ten percent of educational attainment.
So soon comes the intelligence test by DNA analysis? In the US, several companies already offer just that, a saliva sample by mail is sufficient. However, this does not seem particularly sensible, because a much more accurate result is obtained if a person does a direct IQ test.
But things are different with the unborn life. Just a few days after the fusion of the egg and the sperm, DNA could be taken from the cell clusters and an at least vague prognosis about the future school success of the potential child could be made. So far, genomic prediction has been explicitly limited to defined pathological states. For example, parents can use the test to see whether one of their embryos might be an extreme case in which the child is likely to have a much lower than average intelligence quotient.
But further application is obvious, because with the same test, which sorts out an embryo with possibly extremely low IQ, one could find one with a particularly favorable predisposition. A young, healthy couple can often choose among ten embryos in an artificial insemination, which could be compared with each other under this condition. The number could be increased if it routinely manages to win human oocytes also from the body's own stem cells . The women would then even spared the incriminating hormonal stimulation. Genetically, these embryos could be sorted according to their potential properties.
Speaking to WELT AM SONNTAG, Stephen Hsu denies the question of whether genomic prediction plans such applications. He comments more freely on his blog: "Imagine what a pair would pay to select the best among ten or fifty possible offspring," he wrote in 2012. "Compare that to the cost of a Harvard education, or a private school ... I hope that progressive governments will provide the procedure to all people for free. The benefits of increased economic performance and reduced social costs would far outweigh the costs. "Given such statements, it is hard to believe that Genomic Prediction was founded to protect affluent Americans from the risk of "mentally disabled." To bring children to the world. In addition, Genomic Prediction is not an isolated case. According to the Economist, another company, MyOme, based in Menlo Park, California, will be launching in 2019 with a similar approach. It seems only a matter of time before, as in the case of the Crispr babies, a first company overrules existing ethical norms.
If He Jiankui actually managed to make babies immune to HIV with Crispr, he only had to destroy one gene. The same could be said for monogenic diseases - but they can be avoided by selecting an embryo without genetic defects. The vast majority of diseases or traits are based on many genes - for intelligence it could be ten thousand. To change them with Crispr, the molecular biologists are still far away. A real "designer baby" is technically still far beyond the feasible. In addition, one would have to understand in such a profound intervention, what the individual genes actually cause and how the changes affect all other properties. By contrast, the comparatively simple selection for intelligence is about to be ready for the market.
In Vitro Fertilization: In IVF, oocytes are fertilized with sperm outside the body. Couples who can not get children naturally will be able to do so. With Louise Brown in 1978 the first IVF baby in the world was born.
Preimplantation genetic diagnosis: In the case of PID, the genetic material of the embryo is examined for specific genetic characteristics following artificial insemination. It can detect individual gene variants that are known to cause disease with high probability. Embryos that have such genes are then usually not inserted into the woman's uterus.
Monogenic diseases: Huntington's disease , cystic fibrosis or even Krabbe 's disease can be traced back to a single gene. If a parent carries this genetic material, the risk for the child is at least 50 percent, sometimes even 100 percent.
Polygenetic predispositions: Diseases such as diabetes, coronary heart disease or Alzheimer's can not be attributed to individual genes. Although the genome indicates a certain risk, environmental influences can reduce this risk so much that the disease does not always break out.
Crispr: With the help of the gene scissors Crispr the genetic material can be rewritten. But critics point out that this method is far from as accurate and as good as hoped. The late effects of a Crispr intervention are also not yet proven.