A step too far?

PUBLISHED: 08:16 20 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:03 22 October 2010

Just what is an acceptable disability? And who should choose where the bar is set?

Just what is an acceptable disability? And who should choose where the bar is set?

Every time a story about embryo screening hits the headlines, emotive questions about ethics and the sanctity of life are rekindled.

The latest leap in technology could give hope to hundreds of couples desperate for a baby but worried about passing on genetic diseases.

However, ethical campaigners fear doctors have taken another step towards so-called designer babies created according to their parents' specifications.

Modern techniques mean in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) is more successful than ever before in helping childless couples. And scientists can now screen embryos for devastating dis-orders such as Huntington's disease and cystic fibrosis and genetic cond-itions such as Down's syndrome.

This is done with a technique known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) that identifies specific mutations in genes.

But yesterday it emerged that a team of scientists based at Guy's Hospital, London, had developed a new way of working that was quicker and could identify even more diseases.

The British breakthrough is similar to the genetic fingerprinting technique used in police inquiries.

Five couples who have undergone the test are now all expecting "healthy" babies after IVF. Experts hope hundreds more couples in the UK will soon be helped by the technique each year, and in future it may be used to screen out thousands of genetic diseases.

It could mean more parents are put in the position where they can choose not to select embryos with a risk of a serious and debilitating disease.

Yet some people fear that changing technology is creating a slippery slope that will lead one day to babies being created according to the whims of parents wanting to control everything from eye colour to musical aptitude.

Josephine Quintavalle, of the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "I am horrified to think of these people sitting in judgment and deciding which embryos should live and which should die. The goalposts are already getting wider and wider."

MPs have shown particular con-cern about the rights of parents to use new advances to choose their baby's sex - presently only allowed if parents need to avoid a serious genetic condition linked to gender, such as haemophilia. And the Government announced a review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 last August.

Prof Peter Braude, who developed the technique at Guy's Hospital in London, said: "We don't have to know the precise details of a mutation - just whereabouts it is in the genome. It is more accurate and reliable than PGD and could be available for a whole range of disorders."

About 1,000 mutations are thought to cause the inherited disease cystic fibrosis, but only one, the most common, can be identified by PGD.

The new test can take as little as two months to do and has the potential to detect many more disorders than traditional PGD.

For the test, blood samples are taken from a couple and any affected existing children or relatives. DNA from these samples is tested and compared.

Using a technique to create many more copies of chromosomes in the lab, scientists look for markers that show if an embryo carries the problem chromosome or a disease-free version.

Only healthy ones are implanted into the mother's womb.

One of the pregnant women has a rare disorder that leads to pancreatic tumours. Two other cases involve the muscle-wasting disorder, Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Details of the development were presented at the annual meeting in Prague of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.

The debate surrounding these issues has raged for decades - since before the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978.

With technology advancing all the time, it looks certain to continue.

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