sequence the genome of his then unborn son, who was born earlier this month.
By Amanda Biederman
Chief Science Correspondent
Prior to 1977, expectant parents could only at guess their child's gender. Now, scientists have the ability to sequence entire fetal genomes in the first trimester.
University of California, Davis Ph.D. student Razib Khan used placental tissue from his wife's chorionic villus sampling (CVS) test, a common procedure typically performed between 10 and 12 weeks, to extract his son's full set of genetic information.
Although Khan said he chose to obtain the sequences out of personal curiosity, his work represents a growing revolution within the medical and scientific community that could alter the way people view their own genetic identities. Khan said the experiment was "more cool than practical" in an interview published last Friday.
“My instinct is this will be available certainly in the next decade, and probably sooner,” said Benjamin E. Berkman, MPH, deputy director of the Bioethics Core at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md.
For most parents, like Khan, the information yielded from prenatal sequencing will likely be harmless. They'll learn their child's eye color, hair color and predicted height. Expecting parents might marvel over whether their son will be double-jointed, or whether their daughter will be able to roll her tongue.
However, the sequencing can also yield more serious results, such as a predisposition to breast cancer or heart disease. Parents could learn that their unborn child has autism, a disease that is not known to run in families but is influenced by genetic variability.
Prenatal genetic testing for diseases already a common procedure, as parents will often choose to undertake the testing when they believe their child may have inherited or developed a certain disease. However, with genomic testing, the parents would have access to all information - learning things about their future child that they may have never suspected.
In some ways, this information could be good news for parents because they will be more attuned to their child's medical dispositions from the very beginning. There would be a much lower chance of diseases and conditions going undiagnosed.
However, many skeptics remain concerned that the technology could venture a step further, allowing parents not only to recognize their child's genetic implications, but to actually modify them. Doctors could cure their patients of serious diseases before they ever suffer from them. In another example, a baby boy that appears genetically predisposed to remain 5'6" could be "modified" before birth in hopes of reaching 6'4", a theoretical practice known as "genetic enhancement."
Yet this sounds like a combination of science fiction and an all-too popular slippery slope argument. And at the moment, that is all the concept appears to be. Previous studies have been unsuccessful at inducing altered traits in organisms. And even if prenatal genetic engineering was to become feasible in the future, it would be closely regulated by the FDA. The primary reason this technology has not yet been attempted is that prior studies to date with any success have been unable to earn government approval to implement the technology.
Parents won't be making designer babies, at least not any time soon.
However, within the next decade prenatal genomic sequencing holds the potential to improve the quality of life for thousands of children and their families.