July 5, 2022

Fertility chief to be carpeted over “designer baby” tests

The head of the UK’s fertility authority, Suzi Leather, has been issued a “please explain” note by a House of Commons committee after she failed to consult Parliament or the public before allowing a London IVF clinic to screen embryos for an adult-onset medical condition. MPs, scientists and bioethics groups are alarmed that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has established a precedent for using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to detect a genetic predisposition to diseases which will only affect people in later life. A spokeswoman for the HFEA would only reveal that the committee which made the decision was made up of four lay members and one clinician.

The application which sparked the controversy was made by Dr Paul Serhal, of University College Hospital in London. He intends to screen embryos for a condition called familiar adenomatous polyposis, which is associated with bowel cancer. “I don’t see any problem with all this,” said Dr Serhal. “Second on the list is retinoblastoma, and BRCA 1 and 2 [breast cancer genes] will certainly be screened as well. How can you not avail yourself of a technology that has such potential?”

The notion of screening and destroying embryos to prevent a disease which might not strike for decades, if ever, drew a sharp comment from Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics: “This is not more of the same — this is a condition that does not arrive for 20 years, and the way medicine is moving a cure may be available by then. We are not thinking about curing the disease, but about eliminating the carrier. It is pretty shoddy medicine.”