14 October 2013
ByAppeared in BioNews 726
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 Meade, Professor 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 in to.
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 through'. Another 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 went in.
While a few of us in the audience might have felt some topic or 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).