According to the Sunday Times newspaper, a UK clinic is requesting permission to test embryos in order to select those free from early onset Alzheimer's disease. Charl and Danielle de Beer are planning undergo IVF treatment in conjunction with PGD at the Bridge Centre in London. The couple's doctors are reportedly applying to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) this month for a licence to carry out the procedure.
PGD involves taking a single cell from a 2-4 day old embryo, performing a genetic or chromosome test on that cell, and then returning one or two unaffected embryos to the womb. In the UK, the use of PGD is regulated by the HFEA, which licenses the procedure on a case-by-case basis. Previously, it had only permitted the use of PGD for fully 'penetrant' gene mutations that always result in a serious illness, usually in childhood. However, last May, the authority gave clinics the go-ahead to test embryos to avoid passing on hereditary cancer, a decision that followed a public debate on testing embryos for 'lower penetrance', later onset genetic disorders.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, a slow decline in mental ability. It is caused by the gradual death of certain brain cells, especially in the areas involved in memory. Most people with Alzheimer's have not inherited it, but in a few cases (less than one in 100), the disease is caused by a gene mutation inherited from an affected parent. In this type of Alzheimer's the symptoms tend to appear earlier than usual.
Charl de Beer's mother died earlier this year, aged 64, after developing Alzheimer's disease at the age of 49. His maternal grandmother died from the condition when his mother was just five years old, and two of his uncles also died prematurely from the condition. 'My family has been dealing with Alzheimer's for fifteen years now', said Mr de Beer, adding 'I am not prepared to run the risk of passing this on to my kids, and my wife has the same view'. The de Beers were apparently considering adoption before they heard about PGD.
The news has attracted criticism from pressure group Human Genetics Alert. Director David King said that while he sympathised with the de Beers, 'we can confidently expect science to find a cure for Alzheimer's in the next 40 years. I don't believe that it is better never to have been born than to live a healthy life for 45 years and die from Alzheimer's'. He told the newspaper: 'If we don't want to slide down this slippery slope, we must restrict PGD to conditions that are fatal in early life'. But Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, who is treating the couple said: 'Society is becoming more comfortable using this powerful technology to avoid conditions that cause distress by creating what silly people call "designer babies"'.