Genomic Prediction featured in Danish Media

Lone Frank is an award-winning Danish science journalist, author, PhD in neurobiology. Lone translates an interview with Prof. Hsu into an article titled "Intelligent Designer Babies". Lone explores the desirability of screening embryos for intelligence.

Full story here, by Danish science journalist Lone Frank.

Elitism. An American company today can predict low intelligence in fertilized eggs - so that future parents can opt to not use them. In practice, the company can also test for high intelligence. But should parents have that option at all?

Intelligent designer children

It cannot be said that they advertise it much, but the company Genomic Prediction has become the first to offer potential parents the opportunity to test the intellect of yet unborn children. The offer is hidden on the website, which explains that a genetic mapping of fertilized eggs from IVF can indicate the risk of a number of diseases - including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.

Between them one also finds 'intellectual disability', ie low intelligence. This is not an intelligence test as such, but a test that according to the company can designate fertilized eggs with a particularly high risk of becoming individuals with an IQ below 70. These are two standard deviations from an IQ of 100 which is normal, down where on in diagnostic language speaks of "mental retardation". In fact, the technology can also designate fertilized eggs which are likely to develop into high IQ individuals. But so far, the service is not planned to be offered.

"No," says Stephen Hsu, one of Genomic Predictions three founders. »We have chosen to follow the generally accepted 'disease model', which only advises on the risk of conditions that are regarded as disorders, and have a diagnosis. With regard to particularly high intelligence, we are not sure it is something that the surrounding community wants you to have the opportunity to choose. "

Yet. On the other hand, there is great interest in being able to opt out of "mentally disabled" children, says Stephen Hsu. Genomic Prediction does not work directly with future parents, but with fertility doctors and clinics, and inquiries have poured in since the new service hit the media last November. The technology does not provide any guarantee - these are statistics and probabilities - but according to the company's published data, it is as good at predicting performance levels as the access tests provided to young people entering college in the United States. These are tests that strongly correlate with intelligence, and which certainly do not determine with certainty how well you end up doing at completing your educational degree. But which do, however, provide a quite reliable clue.


"For example, if you score in the bottom tenth, you're more likely to do poorly, having bad grades or dropping out," Hsu says.

A quantum leap into a new genetics

"Such estimates are problematic," says Thomas Werge, a professor at the Psychiatric Center Sct. His and working with the same methods that Genomic Prediction uses for their predictions. "The technology is new and has lots of difficulty. And although it can be used at population level, I do not at all believe that it is currently ready to be used at individual level. "

Werge, however, has no doubt that it is coming, and the professor points out that research right now radically changes the whole approach to genetics and drastically expands the field's possibilities. He talks about a quantum leap into a genetics that does not rely on biological understanding, but on pure mathematics.

“Traditionally, we have tried to identify single genes and variants of these genes that are important for a given disease, mental trait or behavior. It has just not brought us very far, because in practice some genes and variants explain very little separately. The vast majority of conditions, disorders and properties are complex. That is, they are under the influence of hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of genes, which together affect the final outcome. "

Calculation of probabilities for these outcomes comes from Big Data. You test millions of genetic variants scattered in the genome, and you do it on large databases of biological material and personal information from thousands or millions of people. The exercise can in principle provide insight into the individual genetic risk of any trait that is under genetic influence. And the research is now moving far beyond the medical world, and into the behavioral genetics, where it is about our psychology and ways of carrying ourselves in the world. This includes personality traits, a tendency to commit violent crime, or the likelihood of a long-term higher education.

The latter has been the focus of professor of economics at the University of Southern California Daniel Benjamin, and he calls the new genetics "a gift for social research". The young researcher is part of a scientific vanguard which shakes off the traditional understanding of man as a mere product of culture, politics, and economics. This development of biological explanation is not popular everywhere.

"The mixture of biology and social thinking has a dark prehistory, so I understand that many people have anxiety. But we get a defective picture of the social and societal contexts we are studying, unless we also take heredity into the equation, ”Benjamin says. He emphasizes that what we reflexively call social heritage is often partly a matter of genetics.

As now, this applies to education level. According to the prevailing view, the length of the education you take is largely a question of whether the child grows up during study-promoted conditions or whether it has been in a home with piano and books in the bookcase. The single factor that has hitherto meant explains most of the variation in a population is social background.

Our genes are of great importance

But as a new, remarkable study from Benjamin and a team of international colleagues, genetics actually means more. The researchers have had access to 1.1 million people whose DNA and person-related information are already located in major medical research databases in the UK and the US, respectively. Where parents' income statistically accounts for 7 percent of the variation within the studied population, genetics stands at 11 percent. In other words, it is possible to predict and explain the layering of citizens' degree of education at least as well with a genetic test as with demographic information.

It is not because you have got a mechanistic explanation of how genes influence - whether you choose to finish school after high school or grab a PhD. in Romanesque philology. But both Daniel Benjamin and other research teams who have made similar studies can identify over a thousand genetic variants that play. And they can (and do) have virtually anything to do with the development of the brain and with the design and effectiveness of its communication pathways.

"They should not be perceived as 'nuisance to education'," Benjamin emphasizes. "But these are variants, each of which subtly affects the individual's psychology, intelligence and cognition in a broad sense. And by that way, they have an impact on how we act in our environment and the context in which we find ourselves - in this case the modern education system. "

Is it the road to race hygiene?

Well then. But what should we do with this kind of knowledge of heredity? Is it dangerous to walk down the road where you see people as genetically suitable or not suitable? Yes, isn't it exactly the way to race hygiene?

Behavioral genetics have for decades been an excoriated field. It has caused everything from elitism to racism, and critics have pointed out that it could actually say very little about our behavior. Now, with new methods and indisputable data storming forward, many worry about a future in which the individual's ability in society is dictated and limited by genetic tests. Among other law professors at the University of Pennsylvania Dorothy Roberts has argued that research such as Benjamin and colleagues should not be conducted because it "cannot be socially neutral - and will actually increase social inequalities".

But that's a misconception, replies Kathryn Paige Harden, a psychologist at the University of Texas, in a New York Times chronicle. "We who appreciate social justice should instead ask: How can the genetic revolution serve to create a more equal society?"

Harden emphasizes that knowledge of genetics is not just about genes, but that it points out itself and gives the opportunity to understand how environmental impacts have an effect on our lives. For example, when examining various initiatives in the school area, it is necessary to take into account genetics in order to get a true and fair view of whether and for whom a given initiative actually works.

"We cannot change anyone's genes, but we can change the way that children are raised. Understanding what environmental aspects can improve children's ability to think and learn is necessary if we want to invest wisely in efforts that really make a difference,” writes Harden. And Daniel Benjamin adds:

"Many are against genetic research, because they believe that as soon as heredity is involved, it empowers arguments that political action will not have an effect, and therefore cannot pay off. This idea is just wrong,” he says, referring to an illustrative and quite new British study. Here, a team of economists and geneticists show how the one-year further forced schooling in Britain was introduced in 1972, and subsequently made a positive difference in the health of people born in the late 1960s. It was already known that more education leads to fewer problems with lifestyle diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. But with a dive in the gene databases, the researchers found that the effect of the extra school year was particularly pronounced for people who were genetically predisposed to these lifestyle diseases. 

The message is thus that the genetically "weak" have the most to gain from help.

It is potentially a revolution

It sounds appealing, but the next question is how to deal with the possibility of completely screening the 'weak' out? Then we are back to the idea of designed children, who can already be identified in the egg based on the same genetic calculations that social scientists use in their population surveys. In today's USA, it is perfectly legal to screen fertilized eggs and designate those with a high risk of very low intelligence. Genomic Prediction expects to be allowed in Britain in the next year's time. Here, fertility specialist Simon Fishel, who heads Care Fertility Group, says to New Scientist: "I take my hat off to what they’re doing. It’s a potential revolution."

As soon as Genomic Prediction turns the technology around and uses it to identify potentially "highly intelligent" embryos, people become more mealy-mouthed. Some scientists immediately point out that intelligence is not entirely genetically determined. Others suggest contemplation, because selection for intelligence might bring about selection for something else you did not intend. The genetics behind high intelligence can thus also be linked to a higher risk of developing autism. "It's a difficult issue, a bit like talking about nuclear weapons," says Stephen Hsu of Genomic Prediction. He repeats that the company is not planning to offer the opportunity to screen for high intelligence.

In an 2016 essay, however, the same Hsu writes that he is convinced that the option of choosing will come to some countries open to it, and that the global elite will be the first avid users of the opportunity. He also predicts that many countries will end up not only legalizing the technology, but that they will make it available in their national health care systems.

Both Hsu and others are careful to call for thorough and open public debate on the subject, but in fact it is striking how subdued the discussion is. Earlier, when the opportunity was actually purely hypothetical, there was reflexive distortion whenever the subject fell to designer babies. Now, you suddenly sense of a tendency for more nuanced considerations. As when The Guardian recently called for calm before becoming too indignant. We now discuss how to make sense of the fact that we as a society can find it acceptable to opt out of children with Down Syndrome, but not children with extremely low intelligence. Why do we think it is commendable by all means to try to optimize our children's intellect after birth, but not before, the British newspaper asks?

LONE FRANK (b. 1966) is a journalist and author as well as a Ph.D. in neurobiology educated in Denmark and the USA. She writes in particular about biology, psychology, psychiatry and ethics and has received a number of awards, including The Great Publicist Prize, Søren Gyldendal Prize, the European Science Writers Award and the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. Has also hosted the radio program 24 Questions to the professor, has produced several series of sciences for DR and has together with director Pernille Rose Grønkjær made the award-winning documentary film Genetic Me. Her latest books, The Fifth Revolution, My Beautiful Genome, and the Pioneer's Desire are published in several languages.

© Genomic Prediction, 2019