Separating hype from reality in the coming era of gene-enhanced ‘designer babies’

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Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

[W]hat new iteration of genetic testing could tempt healthy, fertile couples to reject our traditional time-tested and wildly popular process of baby making in favor of hormone shots, egg extractions and DNA analysis?

A California-based start-up called Orchid Biosciences claims it has an answer to that question. The company offers prospective parents genetic testing prior to conception to calculate risk scores estimating their own likelihood of confronting common illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and schizophrenia and the likelihood that they will pass such risks along to a future child.

Geneticists have greeted Orchid’s launch with skepticism, in large part because of objections to the company’s use of a technique called polygenic risk scores to assess an embryo’s lifetime risk of common diseases. Heart disease runs in families just like musical ability or height, but only in exceptional cases can the inherited risk be traced to a single gene. 

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“We don’t know what these variants are doing biologically,” says [epidemiologist] Peter Kraft… “Something that’s associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer could be associated with all other kinds of things, some of which might actually increase your risk of something else. We just don’t know enough yet.”

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