Test DNA before having children, urges Harvard professor

DNA testing

Couples should test each other’s DNA before starting a family to minimize the risk of inherited disease, according to a senior Harvard professor. And they may have to decide to stay childless.

George Church has been a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School for the past 30 years. His work has explored everything from resurrecting the woolly mammoth, reversing ageing and he was one of the architects of the revolutionary Human Genome Project (HGP), which sequenced human DNA in its entirety.

There are about 7000 inherited conditions due to parents being badly matched genetically. About 5% of babies, therefore, have conditions such as muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia. In an interview with science magazine Discover, Professor Church argues that the world could be rid of such diseases if couples took DNA tests before having a family.

To eliminate these inherited conditions, millions of couples would be advised not to have children. They could use IVF instead so the embryos would be screened. Alternatively, genetic testing of an unborn baby could be considered with a view to termination. While such testing could be expensive, Professor Church stresses that these illnesses last a lifetime and cost millions to health providers.

Genetic matchmaking

Genetic matchmaking is now a part of marriage for some Jewish communities. About 20% of Ashkenazi Jews are carriers for at least one severe recessive genetic disorder, such as Tay–Sachs disease. This genetic disorder destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Infantile Tay–Sachs disease becomes apparent around 3–6 months of age with the baby suffering hearing loss, seizures and the inability to move. Most babies die in early childhood.

The situation prompted scientists and community members to come up with a plan. In high school, boys and girls have their DNA sequenced. They’re assigned a number, but not told if they’re a carrier of the disorder. Once a couple is ready to get married, they send their numbers to religious officials, who compare them. If neither person, or just one, is a genetic carrier, they’re told they’re a healthy match. But if both carry genes for Tay–Sachs, the couple is informed and given genetic counseling about their options. Thousands of Ashkenazi couples go through the process every year, and more than 4500 have decided not to get married as a result. This has already helped reduce cases of Tay-Sachs significantly, according to Discover magazine.

Professor Church imagines a variation of this program for couples everywhere. Existing social media and online dating sites could be modified to implement this kind of genetic matchmaking for all diseases. In his vision, these kinds of services would add in a genetic screener. If a match might lead to offspring with a fatal disease, you wouldn’t be shown that person.

Privacy concerns

People’s concerns about their genetic privacy may be a major obstacle to Professor Church realizing his dream. In 2018, a survey from the Harris Poll found that about half of all Americans are either ‘extremely’ or ‘very concerned’ about the security of their healthcare data. Most of that concern is related to identity theft and medical data breaches. In addition, some DNA testing services, such as 23andMe, have drawn controversy by selling their customers’ genetic data.

Another hindrance to his plan is simple apathy. “Most people don’t care”, Church says. “You need to motivate them.”

He hopes his latest effort, a company called Nebula Genomics, will address all of these issues. The company, which has offices in San Francisco and Boston, aims to help people understand their genome. AlphaBiolabs does not store personal data including our customers’ DNA profiles. We also don’t sell on any information. To find out about our range of DNA testing services call us now on 727-325-2902, visit us or email info@alphabiolabsusa.com.