A third of Americans are open to the idea of genetically modifying their children if it raises their chance of getting into a top university, a study suggests.
Gene editing technology advancements since the first successful IVF birth in 1978 have many scientists predicting they will be able to offer parents the opportunity to enhance certain traits of their children before they’re born.
This could involve making children that are smarter, stronger, or different in appearance, such as by giving them red hair.
Already parents using IVF can screen their future baby for the risks of having particular conditions or traits, such as schizophrenia and Crohn’s disease, even before the fertilized embryo is implanted in the uterus.
In the latest study, researchers from across the US, including Harvard, surveyed more than 6,800 adults to measure how willing they would be to use genetic technologies on their future children if it meant getting them into a top-100 college.
US adults under 35 with college degrees were more willing to use IVF in conjunction with polygenic embryo screening to summarize the estimated effect of hundreds or even thousands of gene variants associated with a baby’s risk of having a particular condition
When compared to the full sample, people under 35 reported a higher willingness than the full sample to use gene editing, PGT-P, and SAT prep for educational advancement
The participants of the study considered three ‘services’ in this case – genetic testing for polygenic risk (PGT-P) to screen for genetic risk factors, gene editing to make their child smarter, or preparation courses for the SAT standardized pre-college exam.
One question asked was whether the respondent viewed the service as morally acceptable, morally wrong, or not a moral issue at all. Participants could also indicate whether they were unsure. For this question, both PGT-P and gene editing were described as being potentially used for ‘medical and nonmedical traits.’
The other question measured willingness to use each service – gene editing, gene surveillance, and SAT prep courses – by asking participants how likely it was on a scale from 0 to 100 percent that they would use the service to increase the odds that their child will attend an elite college.
Results showed that on average 34 percent of IVF users were open to gene editing and 43 percent were open to genetic screening.
An average of more than two-thirds of participants – 69 percent – would choose to enroll their child in an SAT test preparation course to help get a leg up for college admissions.
A minority of people surveyed – only 41 percent – said they had no moral or ethical problem with gene editing for ‘certain medical and nonmedical traits.’
Gene-editing technology has not advanced to the point of improving someone’s IQ, nor can it cure cancer or fight severe disease.
But, the field of biotechnology is advancing at such a breakneck pace that those could be close.
Prospective parents are already taking advantage of the option to use PGT-P.
The test summarizes the estimated effect of hundreds or even thousands of gene variants associated with a baby’s risk of having a particular condition or trait such as schizophrenia and Crohn’s disease.
It helps parents conceiving via IVF to select the embryo to transfer that does not carry specific rare disease genes. But the technology has been mired in ethical debate.
The study was published Wednesday in the journal Science.
American adults under 35 with college degrees were more willing to use in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in conjunction with PGT-P.
The scientists also found that people were more likely to take advantage of genetic screening technology when they were told that people in similar situations would do so, suggesting a ‘bandwagon effect’.
A minority of participants (41 percent) said they had no moral objection to gene editing for certain medical and nonmedical traits
‘Those who were told that 90% of relevant people use each service were more likely to say that they, too, would use it, compared to those who were told that 10% of people were using it,’ researchers wrote.
They added that most people do not fully understand what the technologies entail and how they work.
This leads to many underestimating the safety risks while overestimating their effectiveness.
Dr Michelle Meyer, a bioethics expert at Geisinger, a Pennsylvania health provider, and the first author of the article said: ‘There is—rightly—a lot of concern among scholars, including us, that companies and IVF clinics that use polygenic embryo screening could intentionally or unintentionally exaggerate its likely impact.’
In fact, technology had a minor impact on the odds of having a child who attends a top-100 college from three percent to five percent odds.
Dr Meyer added: ‘And lots of people are still interested.’
The share of prospective parents willing to go down the gene-editing route was smaller than the one more willing to use traditional SAT prep courses.
Still, researchers believe their findings reflect a growing interest in the technology’s future implications.
Private companies centered on fertility are cashing in on the technology’s applications for expectant parents who can screen for rare diseases, type 2 diabetes, cancers, and even non-medical traits like height and IQ.
Even while the technology becomes more popular and accessible, the ethical debate about it rages on.
Bioethicists have raised concerns about gene editing and CRISPR technologies’ effects on personal autonomy and a child’s future.
There is also concern about the unregulated commercialization of gene surveillance and modification technologies, which would be more accessible to the wealthy and well-connected.
Genetically modifying human embryos has been the object of techno-utopians’ dreams for years, but the majority of Americans are still unconvinced when it comes to the ethics of such procedures.
Bioethicists, including some experts behind the latest study, warned in 2021 that the technology could be leveraged toward for more nefarious purposes, such as manipulating out a gene that people deem less desirable.
A worrisome use of embryo selection based on gene surveillance would be choosing non-medical traits based on social constructs, such as skin pigment, hair color, or certain facial features.
The study said: ‘Selection on the basis of such traits might reinforce racist conceptions of biologic superiority by signaling, either explicitly or implicitly, that certain traits carry value or stigma, possibly amplifying racial prejudice and discrimination.’
A CivicScience poll conducted last year found that only 31 percent of adults said using CRISPR to edit a baby’s DNA was ‘very ethical’ or ‘somewhat ethical,’ compared to a combined 68 percent who said it was ‘somewhat unethical’ or ‘very unethical.’
HOW DOES CRISPR WORK?
Crispr technology precisely changes small parts of genetic code.
Unlike other gene-silencing tools, the Crispr system targets the genome’s source material and permanently turns off genes at the DNA level.
The DNA cut – known as a double strand break – closely mimics the kinds of mutations that occur naturally, for instance after chronic sun exposure.
But unlike UV rays that can result in genetic alterations, the Crispr system causes a mutation at a precise location in the genome.
When cellular machinery repairs the DNA break, it removes a small snip of DNA. In this way, researchers can precisely turn off specific genes in the genome.