Page last updated at 23:13 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 00:13 UK

Code on embryo screening planned

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News, in Barcelona

Gene chip technology
Gene chip technology has huge potential

A code of practice to regulate the use of electronic chips to screen embryos is to be drawn up by the European Fertility Society's ethics task force.

Doctors already screen DNA for lethal diseases, but in principle so-called gene chips could also test for less serious conditions.

And there is concern that they could be used to help create "designer" babies.

Task force chairman Professor Guido De Wert said the technology should be used to improve only fertility treatment.

Trivial conditions

Gene chips are tiny electronic chips that can identify thousands of disease genes from a sample of DNA.

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So it might soon be possible to detect which embryos might more prone to develop, say, heart disease - or more trivial conditions - in later life.

Without regulation, there is concern that some clinics might use the technology to screen out perfectly good embryos.

Professor De Wert has begun a consultation process, involving 10 leading European fertility centres on the issue.

His aim is to accumulate information on what gene chips are capable of and eventually to develop a code of practice on how they should be used.

He said that in theory the technology could turn the embryo into a "crystal ball" enabling doctors to spot risk factors for almost any disease.

However, he warned that almost all embryos carry risk factors for late onset diseases of some sort, and there was a risk of over-zealous weeding out.

Professor De Wert said: "One of my concerns is that people who are naive about genetics think that it is easy to pick the best embryo.

"But even the best geneticists don't know how to interpret how diseases might develop from gene chip information."

Another ethical issue is that some genes associated with diseases might also be associated with a positive quality - for example genes involved in depression might play a role in creativity.

As a first step Professor De Wert is asking experts from the 10 centres involved in the study for their views.

They will be asked how they are proposing to use gene chip technology, what they believe their capabilities to be and their views on the moral implications.


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