Fostering Education

I enjoy the opportunity to visit high school and undergraduate classrooms to introduce students to the exciting field of human genetics and to careers in this area. These visits can be insightful as to the students' current levels of understanding and can reveal misconceptions about genetic technology. Last week I visited a school in another area of our State and was reminded that there can be misunderstandings in students' minds and possibly misconceptions for some in the general public as well.

The question revolved around the topic of "designer babies" and the students were asked whether they believed and to what extent they believed that parents could select specific characteristics or traits for future children. Student responses indicated their belief that parents could select hair and eye color, skin color and gender. The purpose of the question was to illustrate to students that with our continuing research and understanding of genetics, comes the necessity to consider ethical and moral questions; that the science cannot be separated from the ethical realm of thought.

The technology of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) requires in vitro fertilization; eggs and sperm from the parents are mixed in a laboratory dish for fertilization and resulting embryos undergo DNA analysis. It is possible for parents, using technology, to select the sex of their future child but this was not the original intent of this technology. PGD was to be used in the service of disease prevention, to test established pregnancies for specific, very serious genetic conditions.

Students and the general public should understand that aside from gender, the only traits that can now be determined at these early developmental stages are those of some of the more serious genetic disorders. Specific genes or gene clusters responsible for most of our physical characteristics and mental/intellectual development and behaviors are not known and therefore, cannot be "selected" as items on a menu.

Ethical issues and social concerns will continue to emerge and increase in complexity as technology expands. Individual awareness and a basic and accurate understanding of genetics and genetic technology are essential for everyone in order to make well-informed healthcare decisions and in safeguarding future generations.