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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 August 2005, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
Embryo screening limits considered
Developing embryo
Embryos could be tested for a wider selection of genes
The UK's fertility watchdog is considering if embryos should be screened for cancer genes.

The Human Fertility and Embryology Authority is asking for the public's views on the possibility.

It is possible to screen embryos for genes linked to breast, ovarian and some colon cancers.

But carrying the genes does not guarantee disease will develop, so the HFEA is asking if it is appropriate to test for them.

The acceptable solution is to find effective cures for the diseases themselves not to kill the patients at the embryo or foetal stage
Josephine Quintavalle, Comment on Reproductive Ethics

The embryo screening technique known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).

It is available at 10 fertility clinics across the UK so that parents with a family history of serious conditions, such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease, can test embryos and avoid passing on the faulty gene which leads to the condition.

Last year the HFEA issued a licence to University College London to screen embryos for the gene that causes familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) - a condition linked to some bowel cancers.

In the future it is possible that women who carry high risk breast cancer genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2 and have a family history of the disease could opt to have fertility treatment just to screen out these genes - even if they were able to conceive naturally.

The technique could also be used on women who are having IVF anyway because they have not been able to have a baby naturally.

'Chance to think'

The HFEA's policy team has been reviewing the issue of extending screening to conditions where carrying a gene does not definitely lead to disease since the start of the year

Angela McNab, HFEA chief executive, said: "Embryo screening technology can be used to enable families to avoid the birth of a child with a faulty gene that will always lead to the child developing a particular genetic condition, such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease."

She added: "The question that we want to ask people is, should this technology also be used on diseases that people have a lower chance of getting and may occur later on in life?

"Our policy team have identified that we are likely to have to consider applications for using treatment in this way for inherited breast cancer and other conditions in the near future.

"It is important that we are open about the issues that we may face in the future and give people the chance to think about them."

'Cosy euphemism'

She said some women with a strong family history of inherited breast cancer chose to have a double mastectomy before they have developed symptoms to reduce their risk of developing cancer later.

"No parent would wish their daughter to have such major and traumatic surgery.

"But not every woman who carries the faulty breast cancer gene will develop the disease."

Ms McNabb added: "What we are asking people is whether it is appropriate to use embryo screening technology to stop children being born with faulty genes when there is a chance they may never go on to suffer the cancer."

Tony Rutherford, of the British Fertility Society, warned new technology sounded "exciting".

But he added: "the reality is that the techniques are still not that successful and are expensive."

Josephine Quintavalle of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "Yet again we are asked to comment on the testing and destruction of IVF embryos, under the cosy euphemism that they are screening out serious genetic disorders or preventing the passing on of inheritable diseases.

"But the acceptable solution is to find effective cures for the diseases themselves not to kill the patients at the embryo or foetal stage.

"This is the only ethical way forward in the application of our new genetic knowledge."

One woman explains why she would support embryo screening


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