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IVF: Choosing the Most Intelligent Embryo

Within the next 10 years couples undergoing IVF treatment could be given the chance to pick the “smartest” embryo, according to Dr. Stephen Hsu, senior vice president for research at Michigan State University. Genetic screening advances mean that it may soon be feasible to reliably rank embryos according to potential IQ. Of course, the first and most logical question is an ethical one: “Just because we can do something, should we?” In addition to moral concerns, the prospect of highly genetically- selected babies inevitably leads to questions about possible unintended medical consequences and the potential for worsening existing social inequalities.

Genomic Prediction, Hsu’s New Jersey-based company (https://genomicprediction.com/), already offers testing for screening out embryos with abnormally low IQ to couples in the U.S. undergoing assisted reproductive technologies. And, Hsu predicts that screening to rank intelligence at the embryonic level will be available in the next ten years. In fact, not everyone in the scientific community agrees with the prediction and many regard it as genetics run amok and a potential ethical nightmare.

For more than two decades couples undergoing IVF have been able to screen their embryos for chromosomal defects, both chromosome copy abnormalities (e.g., Down Syndrome, Turner Syndrome) and single gene problems (e.g., cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy). And, although many other traits, such as appearance and intelligence and predisposition for certain diseases are known to be inherited, these genes are distributed in hundreds of regions among the 24 pairs of chromosomes (polygenic), and therefore it has been impossible to screen for these traits. However, during the past several years, screening of huge databases of the various genes leading to traits has been possible, thereby allowing for calculation of “polygenic risk scores,” which give the relative likelihood of an individual’s having a particular trait or disease susceptibility.

Hsu’s is the first company to take embryo screening from black and white into the many shades of gray. Presently, prediction of the smartest embryo is not possible but Genomic Prediction projects that once high-quality genetic data from approximately one million individuals becomes available, (anticipated within five to 10 years), it may be able to predict IQ to within about 10 points.

Hsu is reluctant to state that screening for high intelligence would be ethically justified, saying: “Let me just decline to answer that at the moment.”

Admittedly, this technology is highly controversial; however, that does not mean it could not gain acceptance in the future, Hsu said, suggesting parallels with the reaction to IVF in the 1980s.

“The IVF pioneers … were called monsters, Frankenstein doctors; it was predicted that these babies would have health problems,” he said. “I am actually reassured by that. IVF is completely normalized now. Everyone who is pointing their finger [at Genomic Prediction] now should go back and read those articles.”

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