As Machine Learning Unlocks Predictions From DNA Databases, Scientists Say Parents Could Have Choices Never Before Possible



As in several previous articles in this column inspired by MIT publications, this author, an MIT alumnus and former mathematics instructor at the Institute, was granted permission to quote the January, 2018 edition of the MIT Technology Review by its editor, David Rotman.

The title of this article should not be interpreted as a procedure to create a “designer baby” or an attempt to create a “master race” as was attempted by the Nazis. The objectives to be outlined in this article will focus on the prevention, on a statistical basis, of a woman bearing a child through in vitro fertilization (IVF), where the DNA of the embryo reveals that the resulting child would have a high probability of contracting a life-threatening disease, even in its later years, and the consequential need to reject such an embryo.

In their article, MIT first introduces an IVF specialist, Nathan Treff, with a most compelling background: “Nathan Treff was diagnosed with type I diabetes at 24. It’s a disease that runs in families, but it has complex causes. More than one gene is involved and the environment plays a role too, so you don’t know who will get it.”

“Now Treff…is working on a radical way to change the odds. Using a combination of computer models and DNA tests, the startup company he’s working with, Genomic Prediction, thinks it has a way of predicting which IVF embryos in a laboratory dish would be most likely to develop type 1 diabetes or other complex diseases. Armed with such statistical scorecards, doctors and parents could huddle and choose to avoid embryos with failing grades.”

“IVF clinics already test the DNA of embryos to spot rare diseases, like cystic fibrosis, caused by defects in a single gene…[but] tests are poised for a big leap forward as it becomes possible to look more deeply at an embryo’s genome and create broad statistical forecasts about the person it would become.”

The Ombudsman Alert, as well as Treff and the MIT investigators, note a controversial side to these discoveries since the same techniques can be used to project the eventual height, weight, skin tone and even intelligence of an IVF embryo. So here lies the challenge of the ultimate development of these techniques, which not only concern the obvious good of eliminating embryos, which lead to life-threatening diseases for the children from which they emerge, but in the temptation for a parent to “custom design” a child to their specifications.

This will present very real ethical challenges to the researchers, doctors and parents as these techniques are perfected in the future. Ombudsman Alert welcomes input from our readers on the ethical and other concerns discussed in this article. Please address all comments and questions to;