UK doctors are set to test embryos for a rare form of inherited eye cancer, after the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) granted a license to a team at University College Hospital (UCH) in London last week. Four couples will use PGD to try and avoid passing on the genetic condition retinoblastoma to their children. The news comes a week after the HFEA revealed its plans to launch a public consultation on the use of PGD to test for late-onset and 'lower penetrance' genetic disorders.
PGD involves taking a single cell from a 2-4 day old embryo created using IVF performing a genetic or chromosome test on that cell, and then returning one or two unaffected embryos to the womb. Retinoblastoma is a cancer of the retina caused by a mutation in a gene called RB1. People with this faulty gene have a 50 per cent chance of passing it on to any child, and it causes tumours in 90 per cent of those who inherit it. Affected people also have a greatly increased risk of developing another type of cancer during their lifetime.
One of the couples who want to use PGD to avoid passing on retinoblastoma are Angela and Louis Donovan, who have a five-year-old son born with the condition. Kieran's cancer was treated effectively, after a year of chemotherapy and several months of radiation treatment. Although the Donovans were told three years ago that UCH was prepared to use PGD to help them have an unaffected child, their health authority (Lothian and Borders) refused to fund the £6000 treatment. Instead, the couple opted to use prenatal diagnosis, which resulted in the termination of two affected pregnancies. 'The decision to abort was almost worse than Kieran being diagnosed, but I did the only thing I could do for me and my family', Mrs Donovan told the Times. The Donovans are now set to undergo PGD, after the authority agreed to pay for the procedure.
Paul Serhal, leader of the team granted the license, called the move 'a new era in the prevention of disease', adding 'patients are able not only to protect their children from harrowing conditions they know from experience, but can also get rid of it from the family line'. However, Josephine Quintavalle, of the pro-life pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) criticised the HFEA's decision to award the license ahead of its forthcoming consultation. Mrs Donovan said she fully understood people who thought using PGD for retinoblastoma was taking things 'too far'. But, she commented, 'surely it is better to screen the embryos than to put people through the trauma of tests and abortions?'