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The Problem with Polygenic IVF Screening
Katie Breckenridge, M.S. | 09 September 2021
Researchers at the Feinstein Institutes for medical research were recently granted $2.9 million to screen embryos created through in-vitro fertilization for genetic disorders and diseases. Preimplantation genetic testing, which screens for chromosomal abnormalities to detect disorders such as Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington disease, is nothing new.[i] Human embryonic beings are constantly being discarded for being “defective,” since transferring the healthiest embryos increases the chances of successful implantation and reduces the likelihood of miscarriage, thereby saving the commissioning parents thousands of dollars.
The Feinstein Institutes' research is taking this eugenic practice further by screening for diseases that are detectable before implantation but for those that may or may not appear later in life, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and cancer.[ii] The amount of human beings who will be discarded as a result of this new test is concerning. The number of embryos created through the IVF process is already in the millions, with at least a million embryos in frozen storage. The number of embryos created will only increase if the majority are weeded out for potential future diseases. The fertility industry already profits heavily from the creation and commodification of human beings, with its growth expected to increase from $18,475 billion in 2021 to $28,236 billion in 2025.[iii]
Not only will this polygenic embryo selection [PES] process contribute to even more human lives being thrown away based on an assumption of what may afflict these children in the future, but the IVF process itself has been known to contribute to health risks in children conceived through it. Therefore, the likelihood exists that any risk of future diseases detected by PES will be a direct result of an embryo having been conceived through IVF in the first place.
The IVF process consists of multiple steps, from hyperovulation and extraction of eggs to manipulating and fertilizing embryos in a petri dish. These steps expose embryos to unnatural environments with changes in hormone levels due to altering the egg maturation process and changes in temperature, pH, and oxygen tension.[iv] These steps occur at a time when embryos are most vulnerable, as these processes will never occur again, and changes in the environments of these small humans can contribute to epigenetic modification. The epigenetic modification most associated with the IVF process is "DNA methylation," which regulates cellular processes like chromosome structure, the transcription of DNA, and embryonic development. If the methylation cycle doesn't work efficiently, this can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune and neurological disorders.[v]
Since these epigenetic alterations can affect the cardiovascular system, researchers have found that healthy children conceived through IVF without any other detectable cardiovascular risk factors[vi] have an elevated risk of future cardiovascular issues, which can progress in severity to arterial hypertension.[vii] In a 2012 study of 65 children conceived through IVF and 57 naturally-conceived children, it was found that "...low-mediated dilation of the brachial artery was 25% smaller…carotid-femoral pulse-wave velocity was significantly faster, carotid intima-media thickness was significantly greater, and the systolic pulmonary artery pressure at high altitude...was 30% higher in ART-conceived children than in controls."[viii] Other studies from 2015 and 2017 show that cardiac systolic and diastolic function changes can occur during childhood in IVF-conceived children, leading to early-onset myocardial alterations. There was found to be an abnormal expression of proteins, proteins responsible for blood coagulation and iron and lipid metabolism, and findings that show an increase in blood pressure and higher blood vessel thickness, indicating the increased risk for cardiovascular disease.[ix]
Children conceived through IVF also show higher fasting blood glucose levels as well as impaired insulin sensitivity. These children have shown suboptimal glucose and cardiovascular metabolic profiles compared to naturally-conceived children, leading to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.[x] Women who conceive via IVF have a 55 percent higher risk of premature birth, and those who undergo ovarian hyperstimulation have a 45 percent higher risk. Infants born prematurely have a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, premature puberty, and cardiovascular and neurological diseases.[xi] It was found that those children born prematurely and with very low birth weight were, around five to six years of age, taller than naturally conceived children around six to10 years of age. This increased height and rapid weight gain is another contributing factor to higher blood pressure levels.[xii] Furthermore, there is a higher risk of birth defects such as malformations of the eye, heart, and genitourinary system in IVF-conceived children.[xiii]
Barbara Luke of Michigan State University studied the connection between birth defects and cancer in children conceived naturally and via IVF. Children born with major birth defects through IVF had approximately seven times the cancer risk as opposed to children with birth defects conceived naturally, of which the cancer risk was only three times more likely.[xiv]
Lastly, there are prevalent issues with pubertal development in, specifically, IVF-conceived girls. While pubertal males tend to develop typically, females show less advanced breast development and more advanced bone age.[xv] This advanced bone age can cause the epiphyseal plates in the bones to stop aging prematurely, leading to various growth disorders.[xvi]
Should human beings be eliminated for diseases they may or may not be afflicted with in the future? No one can accurately predict with 100 percent certainty which diseases any person will develop, and embryos showing disease potential may live completely healthy lives and vice versa. The Feinstein Institutes are taking this ever-increasing experimentation with human life too far, and these eugenic polygenic embryo selection practices must be put to an end. That requires, of course, that the very idea of conception through IVF---an already profoundly risky process---once again becomes a notion widely seen as preposterous.
Katie Breckenridge, M.S.
Them Before US