Genetic Testing in Assisted Reproduction: Selecting, Not Perfecting?
Organised by the British Library
British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB
Wednesday 9 October 2013
We had almost made it through the speakers when it happened,
just before the break. It was the last speaker who did it. It was Dr Joyce Harper who said what I'd been
waiting for, and dropped the Gattaca bomb.
Gather enough people to talk about embryo selection for long
enough, and comparisons to the cult 1997 film will inevitably be made. So it
was last week, when the British Library held one of their TalkScience events on the subject of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).
We had four experts on hand to guide us
through the ins and outs of the technology: Dr Alan Thornhill, Nick
Rosamund Scott and Dr Harper. Each took to the mic to give a short speech
on a different aspect of PGD, after which the audience were encouraged to get
involved and ask some questions.
PGD uses a range of techniques alongside IVF to allow couples with known heritable diseases to check
their embryos for that condition, preventing them from passing it on to their
children. Drawing on their professional knowledge, the panel filled us in on developments
in technical know-how, legislation, and how demand for PGD is rising.
All told, an enjoyable night was had. The speakers were
engaging, the audience involved, and the talks artfully avoided the temptation
to dumb down. However, despite ethically titillating subject matter, the
discussion fell short of provocative.
I can't help but feel this was inevitable. All the panel -
and apparently half the audience - was professionally involved with PGD on
one level or other and viewed it favourably, leaving little room for genuine
debate. Perhaps the original chair, Dr Tom
Shakespeare, might have brought some balancing views, but unfortunately he
was ill on the day.
I can't say that I felt hard done by; indeed many of the
views aired were largely in line with my own. Yet I just couldn't shake the
feeling that everyone would have loved a bit of controversy to get their teeth
Attempts were made: the possibility of PGD fuelling a
eugenics revival, and the emergence of designer babies were both raised, but summarily
shot down. That they were brought up was largely by dint of the panel straining
to give time to opposing viewpoints; that the views failed to get much mileage
seemed to show that no-one present actually held them!
While all of the speakers gave interesting talks, two of
them particularly stood out for me.
The first was for purely nerdy reasons. Dr Harper explored
some of the technologies PGD uses to test embryos, which overlap slightly with
my own research in its use of high-throughput DNA sequencing. I know such
techno-talk isn't always received well by a crowd, but there was at least one person
that night that enjoyed it.
The second was Nick Meade, who brought some real-life case
studies of families who have undergone PGD. These genuine human stories opened
a window into the lives of people who seek PGD, providing a unique insight.
One woman, speaking of her husband who suffered from a rare
heart condition, told how 'he didn't want a child to have to go through what he had been
family whose first child was born with a progressive
muscle-wasting disease revealed that PGD offered a way to protect themselves from 'further heartache'.
While debate might have been a little thinner on the ground
than advertised, I don't have it in me to complain. Complex biology was
communicated, delicate ethical and legal issues were broached (science fiction
references aside) and most importantly, I came out knowing more than when I
While a few of us in the audience might have
other might have been covered a little better, most of the crowd seemed satisfied
come the end of the night (although if it was true that half of them were
actually PGD practitioners, maybe that's no surprise).