The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) agreed in principle on Friday to allow a new type of genetic screening of IVF embryos in the UK. Known as aneuploidy screening, the technique enables embryos to be tested for a range of genetic abnormalities and may help fertility doctors decide which embryos are best to use during fertility treatments. The technique might be particularly useful where there is a history of miscarriage or failure to get pregnant in IVF treatment.
The aneuploidy screening technique allows the embryonic chromosomes to be studied to establish whether there are any abnormalities. Aneuploidy is a condition in which an embryo contains the wrong number of chromosomes in each cell - this might prevent the embryo from implanting into the womb or cause a miscarriage or birth defect. Aneuploidy is thought to affect 40 to 70 per cent of IVF embryos. Embryos found to have the wrong number of chromosomes would not be used in treatment.
Some embryo screening was already permitted by the HFEA, but for conditions which might be caused by a specific gene mutation, rather than whole chromosomes being looked at. The HFEA said on Friday that they might issue two licenses for the technique, to two clinics who had applied earlier in the year. The clinics would first be thoroughly inspected and, if approved, would have to operate within a 'strict framework of monitoring and control'.
The HFEA decision has been criticised as going too far towards being able to create the 'perfect child'. Dr Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, said that it was important to remember that while the technique may improve IVF success rates, it could also be used to screen out embryos with Down's syndrome and other conditions.