Fertility clinics to test embryos for genetic conditions

Screening of embryos for genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis (CF) is being made available in fertility clinics in Cork and Dublin for the first time — with a Dublin clinic offering screening for Down’s syndrome.

Cork Fertility Centre is focusing on genetic testing for CF initially, but has acknowledged it may incrementally broaden the scope of its tests on a case by case basis.

But Beacon Care Fertility has said it will immediately be offering pre-implantation, genetic diagnosis, not only for CF, but also for muscular dystrophy and other genetic conditions.

Beacon is also going a step further by offering chromosonal screening (Array CGH) to women at increased risk of chromosonal abnormalities, including Down’s syndrome and Edwards syndrome.

Up to now, any women who wanted any genetic screening of embryos had to travel to Britain.

However, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB) has now licensed embryo biopsy at both clinics.

Dr John Waterstone, medical director of the Cork Fertility Centre, said the clinic will not undertake testing for Down’s syndrome.

“Down’s syndrome is not a single gene disorder and would require a separate test. The centre’s licence from the IMB for embryo biopsy would permit the centre to undertake such tests. But it is our view that this form of testing for Down’s syndrome while theoretically a good idea, is not yet proven in practice,” he said.

“In addition, the test is primarily applicable to older women who produce fewer eggs. The test is also invasive and could in certain circumstances represent a risk to the ability of the women in question to become pregnant.”

The genetic screening in Cork and Dublin will be offered as part of IVF treatment. All interested couples will be required to discuss their situation with a recognised, independent, genetic counsellor before deciding to go ahead.

After embryos are fertilised in vitro, a cell is taken from each to see if they are affected by CF, for example. The cells removed are sent to a genetics laboratory in Britain for testing.

The process can identify embryos which are safe to transfer because the testing has shown them not to be affected by CF.

CF is Ireland’s most common genetic disease. If both partners, while completely healthy, are carriers of the disease, there is a 1:4 chance that any child that they have will be affected by the disease.

Even though 1 in 19 of the Irish population is a CF carrier (the highest carrier rate in the world) it has not been the norm for Irish couples to be screened before they have children.

Medical adviser to the Pro Life Campaign, Dr Berry Kiely, has voiced concerns about the new services as “the basic purpose is to select out certain embryos and give them a chance to survive and others embryos to be discarded”.

“It’s basically saying that there are some embryos, that at the end of the day are human beings, that we don’t want them to survive. We need to look at where this can lead us,” she said.

A new alert system for CF risk came into being on Jul 1, 2011. From that date onwards, all newborn babies in the country were screened to see if they have CF or are CF carriers.

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