Americans are ready to test embryos for future college chances, survey shows

Imagine that you were provided no-cost fertility treatment and also offered a free DNA test to gauge which of those little IVF embryos floating in a dish stood the best chance of getting into a top college someday.

Would you have the test performed?

If you said yes, you’re among about 40% percent of Americans who told pollsters they’d be more likely than not to test and pick IVF embryos for intellectual aptitude, despite hand-wringing by ethicists and gene scientists who think it’s a bad idea.

The opinion survey, published in the journal Science, was carried out by economists and other researchers who say surprisingly strong support for the embryo tests means the US might need to hurry up and set policies for the technology.

To put the results in context, the percentage of people who would test embryos for potential smarts is similar to the proportion of Americans who say they would consider an electric vehicle as their next car purchase.

“I certainly don’t think this is something good. I am concerned about it,” says Michelle N. Meyer, a professor of bioethics with the Geisinger Health System, who coauthored the report. “The bigger risk is saying nothing and letting this unfold against a laissez-faire regulatory and market system.”

One company in the US, Genomic Prediction, is already marketing embryo prediction tests, but so far it only offers scores related to the chance a child will develop common diseases, such as schizophrenia or diabetes, later in life. It says it’s not offering educational aptitude scores and has no plans to.

Specialists have been raising concerns about predictive embryo tests in general: last year, the European Society for Human Genetics called them an “unproven, unethical practice” and suggested they be forbidden until policies governing the use of the technologies can be developed.

One problem with the tests is that it will be challenging to prove they really work. It would take decades, for instance, before anyone could judge whether they accurately predicted a newborn’s health risks. Meyer thinks the Federal Trade Commission should keep close tabs on companies’ advertising claims.

And if the tests do work, that’s also a problem, according to Meyer and her coauthors, who include the geneticist Patrick Turley and the economist Daniel J. Benjamin. They say embryo tests could “exacerbate existing inequalities” in society—for instance, if only people in certain socioeconomic groups use them to have healthier, taller, or smarter offspring.  

“For the foreseeable future and maybe forever, this technology is going to be available only to people who are already wealthy or are privileged in other ways,” says Meyer. “To the extent that this does have an impact, and gives any offspring a boost, [this] is not something that is going to be equally accessible to everybody. Just as wealth is inherited, this is literally things that are inherited. You could imagine a world in which this spins out over generations and helps exacerbate socioeconomic gaps.”

Educational attainment

The new poll compared people’s willingness to advance their children’s prospects in three ways: using SAT prep courses, embryo tests, and gene editing on embryos. It found some support even for the most radical option, genetic modification of children, which is prohibited in the US and many other countries. About 28% of those polled said they’d probably do that if it was safe.

“These are important results. They support the existence of a gap between the generally negative attitudes of researchers and health professionals … and the attitudes of the general public,” says Shai Carmi, a geneticist and statistician at the Hebrew University in Israel, who studies embryo selection technology.

The authors of the new poll are wrestling with the consequences of information that they helped discover via a series of ever larger studies to locate genetic causes of human social and cognitive traits, including sexual orientation and intelligence. That includes a report published last year on how the DNA differences among more than 3 million people related to how far they’d gone in school, a life result that is correlated with a person’s intelligence.

The result of such research is a so-called “polygenic score,” or a genetic test that can predict from genes whether—among other things—someone is going to be more or less likely to attend college.

Of course, environmental factors matter plenty, and DNA is not destiny. Yet the gene tests are surprisingly predictive. In their poll, the researchers told people to assume that around 3% of kids will go to a top-100 college. By picking the one of 10 IVF embryos with the highest gene score, parents would increase that chance to 5% for their kid.

It’s tempting to dismiss the advantage gained as negligible, but “assuming they are right,” Carmi says, it’s actually “a very large relative increase” in the chance of going to such a school for the offspring in question—about 67%.  

Consumer polygenic prediction tests for a number of traits are already available from 23andMe. That company, for instance, offers a “weight report” that predicts a person’s body-mass index. Carmi says education predictions and body-mass predictions have similar accuracy.

Despite the relatively good performance of the “educational attainment” score, 23andMe does not offer these results to its customers. Just like Genomic Prediction, the embryo testing company, it says it wants to keep its focus on health information.

Carmi says he doesn’t think it’s “much of a mystery” why intelligence predictions aren’t on offer: “It’s controversial, draws negative attention, has limited utility and adds … possibly negative effects on other traits. It makes perfect sense not to offer it.”

Public opinion

Fertility experts will discuss embryo prediction technology at a meeting of the ethics board of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine being held today, says the industry group’s spokesman, Sean Tipton. He says IVF practitioners are still divided on the value of the tests. “We would say patients need to be very cautious about claims in this area, and need to be talking to well qualified genetic counselors before they proceed with these tests, which are really complicated and part of a rapidly moving field of science,” says Tipton.

Although scholastic aptitude tests for embryos aren’t being sold yet, the researchers who carried out the poll say it wouldn’t be safe to assume the technology will stay bottled up for long. For instance, before IVF was developed in the 1970s, almost everyone was against “test tube babies.” After it worked, opinion shifted rapidly.

The current poll found only 6% of people are morally opposed to IVF today, only about 17% have strong moral qualms about testing embryos, and 38% would probably do to boost education prospects if given the opportunity. “The sharp turn in public opinion about IVF itself shows that innovations that are initially met with limited uptake and even active resistance can quickly become normalized and widely accepted,” they write.

As far as MIT Technology Review could determine, no child has yet been picked from a petri dish on the basis of its educational potential score. But that moment may not be far off. Early users of Genomic Prediction’s health scores who’ve spoken about their experience come from segments of society with strong preoccupations with cognitive performance.

One couple who were customers of Genomic Prediction, Simone Collins and her husband Malcolm, say they are building a large family using IVF and genomic health prediction tests. While they were not able to access educational prowess scores for their last child, Collins says next time could be different.

In an email, Collins said she has “identified companies” that “will provide this information.” She added, “We’ll absolutely be factoring it in with future embryo selection.”

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