Designer Genes: Screening embryos to fight genetic diseases

We often hear about genetically modified food, but what about people?  Scientists are learning so much about our DNA, they're learning how to hack it, like technology. It's looking more and more as though "designer genes" will be a possibility in the future. Technology is expected to help expand opportunities that are already available today. 

Many couples say having a healthy child is at the top of their wish list. That's the case with sports reporter Allie LaForce and her husband, Houston Astros pitcher Joe Smith.

"His mother, Lee, has Huntington's. For those who don't know, because it is a pretty rare disease, it's a mix of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, so you lose your motor skills and your memory at the same time. Joe's mom is 60, in a full-time care facility and can't write, cook, or see him play baseball anymore," explains Allie. 

There's a 50 percent chance that Joe will one day suffer from Huntington's Disease and his future children face the same risk. That's why he and Allie decided to undergo in-vitro fertilization.

"We can now screen those pre-implanted embryos and make sure that embryos aren't implanted that are carrying genetic diseases that in many cases, or in some cases, are likely to kill those future children," explains Jamie Metzl. He is the author of "Hacking Darwin" and is known as a technology futurist.

He's working to spark a conversation across the country about the future of genetic engineering. His book gives us a glimpse at the future of humanity and how researchers are turning science fiction into reality. He believes embryo screenings are a huge and positive step in the right direction.  

"This is really miraculous and it's really hopeful, but the big picture issue is that the genetics revolution isn't just about healthcare. This is something much bigger and much broader, and we all need to be part of the process of thinking about not just where we are, but where we may be going," says Metzl. 

But for now, the screening process is getting more popular and more affordable every day.  Allie sure hopes it will help wipe-out the risk of Huntington's Disease in her family.

"It really is the cure we have now, because once it's gone from your family line, it's gone forever.  If your children don't have it, you're essentially curing it one family at a time," smiles Allie. 

Doctors can also screen embryos for other single-gene mutation diseases like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and sickle cell disease. 

Dr. Sonja Kristiansen with Houston Fertility Center says many of her patients seek help at her office to end diseases in their bloodline.  

"I have a couple, their child just finished weekly - monthly blood transfusions, and they're looking to not go through that situation where you have a kid constantly sick and might not survive. To know you don't have to go through that, but have a child who has a chance at a healthy life is just amazing," states Dr. Kristiansen. 

Metzl believes in the coming years, doctors will be able to determine most health risks.

"We're going to have a lot of information, and it's going to be in many cases very helpful, so if parents have a newborn and know that their daughter has a 50 percent greater than average chance of developing breast cancer, they're going to want to have that information because that will allow them to have breast cancer screening for her much earlier than would be necessary, if she didn't have that mutation or those mutations," explains Metzl.    

Dr. Kristiansen says the typical price for IVF in Houston ranges from $10,000 to $25,000, and genetic testing typically costs another $7,000. In comparison, studies show a baby born with a genetic disease usually racks-up medical bills of $60,000 in their first month of life.  Allie and Joe continue to raise funds through their foundation "Help Cure HD" by defraying the costs for other couples. 


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