You Can’t Predict Destiny by Designing Your Baby’s Genome; New innovations promise parents more control over a child’s traits, but human life is too multifaceted to be reduced to a formula

You Can’t Predict Destiny by Designing Your Baby’s Genome

New innovations promise parents more control over a child’s traits, but human life is too multifaceted to be reduced to a formula.

MEGAN ALLYSE and MARSHA MICHIE

Updated Nov. 8, 2013 7:12 p.m. ET

In the 1997 film “Gattaca,” wealthy parents regularly use what’s called preimplantation genetic diagnosis to pick children with the most desirable characteristics. Using in vitro fertilization, PGD creates several embryos and then uses the most genetically promising one to attempt a pregnancy. Although genetic discrimination is illegal in the Gattaca world, individuals are nevertheless separated into “valid” and “invalid” categories based on genetically assessed intelligence, susceptibility to disease and life span. Individuals are stratified at birth: “Valids” become astronauts and politicians; “invalids” become janitors.As distant as a Gattaca-style dystopia may seem, recent developments suggest it’s not as far-fetched as it once was. California genetic testing company 23andMe announced in October that it has patented a method for determining the traits, including eye color and height, a hypothetical child would inherit from its parents. The company designed the method to select the best sperm or egg donors from multiple candidates, though it denies any intention of offering such a service any time soon.

New York-based GenePeeks announced in October that it will soon offer a service that can compute up to 10,000 virtual combinations of a woman’s DNA and that of a prospective sperm donor to look for 600 childhood-onset diseases. According to an October story from the BBC, “donors that more often produce ‘digital children’ with a higher risk of inherited disorders will be filtered out, leaving those who are better genetic matches.” Sperm donors deemed genetically inferior—or invalid, in Gattaca terms—will presumably be rejected and have to pass on their genetic material the old-fashioned way.

These innovations expand on an existing service for prospective parents called carrier screening. The screening detects gene variants that, when present in both parents, significantly increase the risk of certain diseases in offspring. Some populations with a known history of certain inherited conditions practice carrier screening widely. Ashkenazi Jewish couples, for example, frequently test for the deleterious variant for Tay-Sachs disease—a severe genetic disease that usually results in death before age four—before marrying or having children.

But the new techniques go much further. A couple in Philadelphia recently gave birth to a healthy baby after scientists sequenced the DNA from several in vitro embryos and determined which was most viable. Most people agree that parents should be able to “design” babies without Tay-Sachs disease. And many would understand why parents with severe diseases that are passed through the Y chromosome would select a female embryo. But what about choosing based on what eye color we like best? The question is no longer whether we can design our offspring, but if we should—and what happens when we try.

It may seem like creating the perfect child will eventually be a matter of who can pay for it. But predicting whether a couple’s offspring will be the next Mozart or Einstein is about as easy as predicting the precise location and airspeed of a hurricane nine months in advance. Even if we know that a combination of genes might result in a 12% increase in musicality, parents have better odds just by signing a child up for piano lessons.

That’s because our genes are too complex to predict. Each person has on average 100 brand-new mutations in their genome. These mutations start the moment a sperm or egg matures and continue through gestation. And no amount of testing in a petri dish can account for all the possible changes. For instance, the most well-known genetic condition in the U.S.—Down syndrome—can only be detected during pregnancy because it results from a genetic change during conception.

Parents have always tried to control their children’s destiny, and complex gene algorithms are merely the latest manifestation of those efforts. But these techniques will only reveal that human life is too multifaceted to be reduced to a mathematical formula. The actual lesson is that even with more information, we can’t predict and perfect the humans we create. And perhaps that’s for the best. After all, human history is full of extraordinary people emerging from places—and genomes—we least expect.

Dr. Allyse is a law and biosciences fellow in science and society at the Duke University Institute for Genome Science and Policy. Dr. Michie is a biomedical ethics research fellow at the Stanford School of Medicine.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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