Testing of embryos extended9th May 2006
A report by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) recommends that Embryo testing should be extended to check for faulty genes not guaranteed to cause disease. The recommendations will be considered for final approval on Wednesday, when a public meeting of the authority in Belfast will discuss the issue.
The HFEA currently allows embryos to be screened for inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis, but now says it would be "appropriate" to screen for susceptibility genes linked to cancer. The recommendation refers to three genes which cause cancer later in life - usually when people are in their 30s or 40s.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are linked to an 80% risk of breast cancer and a 40% risk of ovarian cancer, mutations in the HNPCC gene are linked to an 80% risk of colon cancer. Carrying these genes does not mean a person will definitely develop disease, but puts them at an increased risk.
The HFEA issues licences permitting fertility clinics to use the embryo screening technique, called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Currently ten clinics are allowed to use PGD to test for inherited conditions. The procedure is used around 200 times a year.
PGD is already permitted for two inherited cancer conditions which affect young adults and children - familial adematous polyposis (FAP), a type of bowel cancer, and cancer of the retina.
The paper which will be considered at Wednesday's meeting reports that the HFEA's ethics and law committee recommends it would be appropriate, in principle, to extend the use of PGD for cancer genes "because the features of the conditions are not incompatible with them being regarded as serious genetic conditions." This follows a discussion document and public consultation on the issue last November.
The former chair of the British Fertility Society, Dr Richard Kennedy, said that as the precision and success rates of PGD increase, so the choice of avoiding the threat and consequences of cancer becomes legitimate.
Dr Sarah Rawlings, of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said that it is a complex and personal issue, and that it is 'important for parents to have access to information and support so they can make the right choice for them'.
Others expressed their concern at the report; Josephine Quintavalle, director of the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said that 'PGD is currently nothing more than a weapon of destruction, aimed at the ruthless elimination of any embryo which does not conform to eugenic concepts of perfection.'
Rachel Hurst, of Disability Awareness in Action, said: "If you say that it's OK to say that you can eliminate embryos which would lead to disabled people, you're saying that disabled people are not people." She added "you're saying that their quality of life is not worth living, which is discriminatory and extremely prejudicial."
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