"A world where people are slotted according to their inborn ability – well, that is Gattaca. That is eugenics."
This was the assessment of Dr. Catherine Bliss, a sociologist who wrote a new book on social science genetics, when asked by MIT Technology Review about polygenic scores that can predict a person's intelligence or performance in school. Like a credit score, a polygenic score is statistical tool that combines a lot of information about a person's genome into a single number. Fears about using polygenic scores for genetic discrimination are understandable, given this country's ugly history of using the science of heredity to justify atrocities like forcible sterilization. But polygenic scores are not the new eugenics. And, rushing to discuss polygenic scores in dystopian terms only contributes to widespread public misunderstanding about genetics.
Can we start genotyping toddlers to identify the budding geniuses among them? The short answer is no.
Let's begin with some background on how polygenic scores are developed. In a genome wide-association study, researchers conduct millions of statistical tests to identify small differences in people's DNA sequence that are correlated with differences in a target outcome (beyond what can attributed to chance or ancestry differences). Successful studies of this sort require enormous sample sizes, but companies like 23andMe are now contributing genetic data from their consumers to research studies, and national biorepositories like U.K. Biobank have put genetic information from hundreds of thousands of people online. When applied to studying blood lipids or myopia, this kind of study strikes people as a straightforward and uncontroversial scientific tool. But it can also be conducted for cognitive and behavioral outcomes, like how many years of school a person has completed. When researchers have finished a genome-wide association study, they are left with a dataset with millions of rows (one for each genetic variant analyzed) and one column with the correlations between each variant and the outcome being studied.
The trick to polygenic scoring is to use these results and apply them to people who weren't participants in the original study. Measure the genes of a new person, weight each one of her millions of genetic variants by its correlation with educational attainment from a genome-wide association study, and then simply add everything up into a single number. Voila! -- you've created a polygenic score for educational attainment. On its face, the idea of "scoring" a person's genotype does immediately suggest Gattaca-type applications. Can we now start screening embryos for their "inborn ability," as Bliss called it? Can we start genotyping toddlers to identify the budding geniuses among them?
The short answer is no. Here are four reasons why dystopian projections about polygenic scores are out of touch with the current science:
The phrase "DNA tests for IQ" makes for an attention-grabbing headline, but it's scientifically meaningless.
First, a polygenic score currently predicts the life outcomes of an individual child with a great deal of uncertainty. The amount of uncertainty around polygenic predictions will decrease in the future, as genetic discovery samples get bigger and genetic studies include more of the variation in the genome, including rare variants that are particular to a few families. But for now, knowing a child's polygenic score predicts his ultimate educational attainment about as well as knowing his family's income, and slightly worse than knowing how far his mother went in school. These pieces of information are also readily available about children before they are born, but no one is writing breathless think-pieces about the dystopian outcomes that will result from knowing whether a pregnant woman graduated from college.
Second, using polygenic scoring for embryo selection requires parents to create embryos using reproductive technology, rather than conceiving them by having sex. The prediction that many women will endure medically-unnecessary IVF, in order to select the embryo with the highest polygenic score, glosses over the invasiveness, indignity, pain, and heartbreak that these hormonal and surgical procedures can entail.
Third, and counterintuitively, a polygenic score might be using DNA to measure aspects of the child's environment. Remember, a child inherits her DNA from her parents, who typically also shape the environment she grows up in. And, children's environments respond to their unique personalities and temperaments. One Icelandic study found that parents' polygenic scores predicted their children's educational attainment, even if the score was constructed using only the half of the parental genome that the child didn't inherit. For example, imagine mom has genetic variant X that makes her more likely to smoke during her pregnancy. Prenatal exposure to nicotine, in turn, affects the child's neurodevelopment, leading to behavior problems in school. The school responds to his behavioral problems with suspension, causing him to miss out on instructional content. A genome-wide association study will collapse this long and winding causal path into a simple correlation -- "genetic variant X is correlated with academic achievement." But, a child's polygenic score, which includes variant X, will partly reflect his likelihood of being exposed to adverse prenatal and school environments.
Finally, the phrase "DNA tests for IQ" makes for an attention-grabbing headline, but it's scientifically meaningless. As I've written previously, it makes sense to talk about a bacterial test for strep throat, because strep throat is a medical condition defined as having streptococcal bacteria growing in the back of your throat. If your strep test is positive, you have strep throat, no matter how serious your symptoms are. But a polygenic score is not a test "for" IQ, because intelligence is not defined at the level of someone's DNA. It doesn't matter how high your polygenic score is, if you can't reason abstractly or learn from experience. Equating your intelligence, a cognitive capacity that is tested behaviorally, with your polygenic score, a number that is a weighted sum of genetic variants discovered to be statistically associated with educational attainment in a hypothesis-free data mining exercise, is misleading about what intelligence is and is not.
The task for many scientists like me, who are interested in understanding why some children do better in school than other children, is to disentangle correlations from causation.
So, if we're not going to build a Gattaca-style genetic hierarchy, what are polygenic scores good for? They are not useless. In fact, they give scientists a valuable new tool for studying how to improve children's lives. The task for many scientists like me, who are interested in understanding why some children do better in school than other children, is to disentangle correlations from causation. The best way to do that is to run an experiment where children are randomized to environments, but often a true experiment is unethical or impractical. You can't randomize children to be born to a teenage mother or to go to school with inexperienced teachers. By statistically controlling for some of the relevant genetic differences between people using a polygenic score, scientists are better able to identify potential environmental causes of differences in children's life outcomes. As we have seen with other methods from genetics, like twin studies, understanding genes illuminates the environment.
Research that examines genetics in relation to social inequality, such as differences in higher education outcomes, will obviously remind people of the horrors of the eugenics movement. Wariness regarding how genetic science will be applied is certainly warranted. But, polygenic scores are not pure measures of "inborn ability," and genome-wide association studies of human intelligence and educational attainment are not inevitably ushering in a new eugenics age.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”