Is Finding Out Your Baby’s Genetics A New Responsibility of Parenting?
Hours after a baby is born, its heel is pricked with a lancet. Drops of the infant's blood are collected on a porous card, which is then mailed to a state laboratory. The dried blood spots are screened for around thirty conditions, including phenylketonuria (PKU), the metabolic disorder that kick-started this kind of newborn screening over 60 years ago. In the U.S., parents are not asked for permission to screen their child. Newborn screening programs are public health programs, and the assumption is that no good parent would refuse a screening test that could identify a serious yet treatable condition in their baby.
Learning as much as you can about your child's health might seem like a natural obligation of parenting. But it's an assumption that I think needs to be much more closely examined.
Today, with the introduction of genome sequencing into clinical medicine, some are asking whether newborn screening goes far enough. As the cost of sequencing falls, should parents take a more expansive look at their children's health, learning not just whether they have a rare but treatable childhood condition, but also whether they are at risk for untreatable conditions or for diseases that, if they occur at all, will strike only in adulthood? Should genome sequencing be a part of every newborn's care?
It's an idea that appeals to Anne Wojcicki, the founder and CEO of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe, who in a 2016 interview with The Guardian newspaper predicted that having newborns tested would soon be considered standard practice—"as critical as testing your cholesterol"—and a new responsibility of parenting. Wojcicki isn't the only one excited to see everyone's genes examined at birth. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and perhaps the most prominent advocate of genomics in the United States, has written that he is "almost certain … that whole-genome sequencing will become part of new-born screening in the next few years." Whether that would happen through state-mandated screening programs, or as part of routine pediatric care—or perhaps as a direct-to-consumer service that parents purchase at birth or receive as a baby-shower gift—is not clear.
Learning as much as you can about your child's health might seem like a natural obligation of parenting. But it's an assumption that I think needs to be much more closely examined, both because the results that genome sequencing can return are more complex and more uncertain than one might expect, and because parents are not actually responsible for their child's lifelong health and well-being.
What is a parent supposed to do about such a risk except worry?
Existing newborn screening tests look for the presence of rare conditions that, if identified early in life, before the child shows any symptoms, can be effectively treated. Sequencing could identify many of these same kinds of conditions (and it might be a good tool if it could be targeted to those conditions alone), but it would also identify gene variants that confer an increased risk rather than a certainty of disease. Occasionally that increased risk will be significant. About 12 percent of women in the general population will develop breast cancer during their lives, while those who have a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene variant have around a 70 percent chance of developing the disease. But for many—perhaps most—conditions, the increased risk associated with a particular gene variant will be very small. Researchers have identified over 600 genes that appear to be associated with schizophrenia, for example, but any one of those confers only a tiny increase in risk for the disorder. What is a parent supposed to do about such a risk except worry?
Sequencing results are uncertain in other important ways as well. While we now have the ability to map the genome—to create a read-out of the pairs of genetic letters that make up a person's DNA—we are still learning what most of it means for a person's health and well-being. Researchers even have a name for gene variants they think might be associated with a disease or disorder, but for which they don't have enough evidence to be sure. They are called "variants of unknown (or uncertain) significance (VUS), and they pop up in most people's sequencing results. In cancer genetics, where much research has been done, about 1 in 5 gene variants are reclassified over time. Most are downgraded, which means that a good number of VUS are eventually designated benign.
While one parent might reasonably decide to learn about their child's risk for a condition about which nothing can be done medically, a different, yet still thoroughly reasonable, parent might prefer to remain ignorant so that they can enjoy the time before their child is afflicted.
Then there's the puzzle of what to do about results that show increased risk or even certainty for a condition that we have no idea how to prevent. Some genomics advocates argue that even if a result is not "medically actionable," it might have "personal utility" because it allows parents to plan for their child's future needs, to enroll them in research, or to connect with other families whose children carry the same genetic marker.
Finding a certain gene variant in one child might inform parents' decisions about whether to have another—and if they do, about whether to use reproductive technologies or prenatal testing to select against that variant in a future child. I have no doubt that for some parents these personal utility arguments are persuasive, but notice how far we've now strayed from the serious yet treatable conditions that motivated governments to set up newborn screening programs, and to mandate such testing for all.
Which brings me to the other problem with the call for sequencing newborn babies: the idea that even if it's not what the law requires, it's what good parents should do. That idea is very compelling when we're talking about sequencing results that show a serious threat to the child's health, especially when interventions are available to prevent or treat that condition. But as I have shown, many sequencing results are not of this type.
While one parent might reasonably decide to learn about their child's risk for a condition about which nothing can be done medically, a different, yet still thoroughly reasonable, parent might prefer to remain ignorant so that they can enjoy the time before their child is afflicted. This parent might decide that the worry—and the hypervigilence it could inspire in them—is not in their child's best interest, or indeed in their own. This parent might also think that it should be up to the child, when he or she is older, to decide whether to learn about his or her risk for adult-onset conditions, especially given that many adults at high familial risk for conditions like Alzheimer's or Huntington's disease choose never to be tested. This parent will value the child's future autonomy and right not to know more than they value the chance to prepare for a health risk that won't strike the child until 40 or 50 years in the future.
Parents are not obligated to learn about their children's risk for a condition that cannot be prevented, has a small risk of occurring, or that would appear only in adulthood.
Contemporary understandings of parenting are famously demanding. We are asked to do everything within our power to advance our children's health and well-being—to act always in our children's best interests. Against that backdrop, the need to sequence every newborn baby's genome might seem obvious. But we should be skeptical. Many sequencing results are complex and uncertain. Parents are not obligated to learn about their children's risk for a condition that cannot be prevented, has a small risk of occurring, or that would appear only in adulthood. To suggest otherwise is to stretch parental responsibilities beyond the realm of childhood and beyond factors that parents can control.
Regenerative medicine has come a long way, baby
The field of regenerative medicine had a shaky start. In 2002, when news spread about the first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep, a raucous debate ensued. Scary headlines and organized opposition groups put pressure on government leaders, who responded by tightening restrictions on this type of research.
Fast forward to today, and regenerative medicine, which focuses on making unhealthy tissues and organs healthy again, is rewriting the code to healing many disorders, though it’s still young enough to be considered nascent. What started as one of the most controversial areas in medicine is now promising to transform it.
Progress in the lab has addressed previous concerns. Back in the early 2000s, some of the most fervent controversy centered around somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the process used by scientists to produce Dolly. There was fear that this technique could be used in humans, with possibly adverse effects, considering the many medical problems of the animals who had been cloned.
But today, scientists have discovered better approaches with fewer risks. Pioneers in the field are embracing new possibilities for cellular reprogramming, 3D organ printing, AI collaboration, and even growing organs in space. It could bring a new era of personalized medicine for longer, healthier lives - while potentially sparking new controversies.
Engineering tissues from amniotic fluids
Work in regenerative medicine seeks to reverse damage to organs and tissues by culling, modifying and replacing cells in the human body. Scientists in this field reach deep into the mechanisms of diseases and the breakdowns of cells, the little workhorses that perform all life-giving processes. If cells can’t do their jobs, they take whole organs and systems down with them. Regenerative medicine seeks to harness the power of healthy cells derived from stem cells to do the work that can literally restore patients to a state of health—by giving them healthy, functioning tissues and organs.
Modern-day regenerative medicine takes its origin from the 1998 isolation of human embryonic stem cells, first achieved by John Gearhart at Johns Hopkins University. Gearhart isolated the pluripotent cells that can differentiate into virtually every kind of cell in the human body. There was a raging controversy about the use of these cells in research because at that time they came exclusively from early-stage embryos or fetal tissue.
Back then, the highly controversial SCNT cells were the only way to produce genetically matched stem cells to treat patients. Since then, the picture has changed radically because other sources of highly versatile stem cells have been developed. Today, scientists can derive stem cells from amniotic fluid or reprogram patients’ skin cells back to an immature state, so they can differentiate into whatever types of cells the patient needs.
In the context of medical history, the field of regenerative medicine is progressing at a dizzying speed. But for those living with aggressive or chronic illnesses, it can seem that the wheels of medical progress grind slowly.
The ethical debate has been dialed back and, in the last few decades, the field has produced important innovations, spurring the development of whole new FDA processes and categories, says Anthony Atala, a bioengineer and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Atala and a large team of researchers have pioneered many of the first applications of 3D printed tissues and organs using cells developed from patients or those obtained from amniotic fluid or placentas.
His lab, considered to be the largest devoted to translational regenerative medicine, is currently working with 40 different engineered human tissues. Sixteen of them have been transplanted into patients. That includes skin, bladders, urethras, muscles, kidneys and vaginal organs, to name just a few.
These achievements are made possible by converging disciplines and technologies, such as cell therapies, bioengineering, gene editing, nanotechnology and 3D printing, to create living tissues and organs for human transplants. Atala is currently overseeing clinical trials to test the safety of tissues and organs engineered in the Wake Forest lab, a significant step toward FDA approval.
In the context of medical history, the field of regenerative medicine is progressing at a dizzying speed. But for those living with aggressive or chronic illnesses, it can seem that the wheels of medical progress grind slowly.
“It’s never fast enough,” Atala says. “We want to get new treatments into the clinic faster, but the reality is that you have to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s—and rightly so, for the sake of patient safety. People want predictions, but you can never predict how much work it will take to go from conceptualization to utilization.”
As a surgeon, he also treats patients and is able to follow transplant recipients. “At the end of the day, the goal is to get these technologies into patients, and working with the patients is a very rewarding experience,” he says. Will the 3D printed organs ever outrun the shortage of donated organs? “That’s the hope,” Atala says, “but this technology won’t eliminate the need for them in our lifetime.”
New methods are out of this world
Jeanne Loring, another pioneer in the field and director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, says that investment in regenerative medicine is not only paying off, but is leading to truly personalized medicine, one of the holy grails of modern science.
This is because a patient’s own skin cells can be reprogrammed to become replacements for various malfunctioning cells causing incurable diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, macular degeneration and Parkinson’s. If the cells are obtained from a source other than the patient, they can be rejected by the immune system. This means that patients need lifelong immunosuppression, which isn’t ideal. “With Covid,” says Loring, “I became acutely aware of the dangers of immunosuppression.” Using the patient’s own cells eliminates that problem.
Microgravity conditions make it easier for the cells to form three-dimensional structures, which could more easily lead to the growing of whole organs. In fact, Loring's own cells have been sent to the ISS for study.
Loring has a special interest in neurons, or brain cells that can be developed by manipulating cells found in the skin. She is looking to eventually treat Parkinson’s disease using them. The manipulated cells produce dopamine, the critical hormone or neurotransmitter lacking in the brains of patients. A company she founded plans to start a Phase I clinical trial using cell therapies for Parkinson’s soon, she says.
This is the culmination of many years of basic research on her part, some of it on her own cells. In 2007, Loring had her own cells reprogrammed, so there’s a cell line that carries her DNA. “They’re just like embryonic stem cells, but personal,” she said.
Loring has another special interest—sending immature cells into space to be studied at the International Space Station. There, microgravity conditions make it easier for the cells to form three-dimensional structures, which could more easily lead to the growing of whole organs. In fact, her own cells have been sent to the ISS for study. “My colleagues and I have completed four missions at the space station,” she says. “The last cells came down last August. They were my own cells reprogrammed into pluripotent cells in 2009. No one else can say that,” she adds.
Future controversies and tipping points
Although the original SCNT debate has calmed down, more controversies may arise, Loring thinks.
One of them could concern growing synthetic embryos. The embryos are ultimately derived from embryonic stem cells, and it’s not clear to what stage these embryos can or will be grown in an artificial uterus—another recent invention. The science, so far done only in animals, is still new and has not been widely publicized but, eventually, “People will notice the production of synthetic embryos and growing them in an artificial uterus,” Loring says. It’s likely to incite many of the same reactions as the use of embryonic stem cells.
Bernard Siegel, the founder and director of the Regenerative Medicine Foundation and executive director of the newly formed Healthspan Action Coalition (HSAC), believes that stem cell science is rapidly approaching tipping point and changing all of medical science. (For disclosure, I do consulting work for HSAC). Siegel says that regenerative medicine has become a new pillar of medicine that has recently been fast-tracked by new technology.
Artificial intelligence is speeding up discoveries and the convergence of key disciplines, as demonstrated in Atala’s lab, which is creating complex new medical products that replace the body’s natural parts. Just as importantly, those parts are genetically matched and pose no risk of rejection.
These new technologies must be regulated, which can be a challenge, Siegel notes. “Cell therapies represent a challenge to the existing regulatory structure, including payment, reimbursement and infrastructure issues that 20 years ago, didn’t exist.” Now the FDA and other agencies are faced with this revolution, and they’re just beginning to adapt.
Siegel cited the 2021 FDA Modernization Act as a major step. The Act allows drug developers to use alternatives to animal testing in investigating the safety and efficacy of new compounds, loosening the agency’s requirement for extensive animal testing before a new drug can move into clinical trials. The Act is a recognition of the profound effect that cultured human cells are having on research. Being able to test drugs using actual human cells promises to be far safer and more accurate in predicting how they will act in the human body, and could accelerate drug development.
Siegel, a longtime veteran and founding father of several health advocacy organizations, believes this work helped bring cell therapies to people sooner rather than later. His new focus, through the HSAC, is to leverage regenerative medicine into extending not just the lifespan but the worldwide human healthspan, the period of life lived with health and vigor. “When you look at the HSAC as a tree,” asks Siegel, “what are the roots of that tree? Stem cell science and the huge ecosystem it has created.” The study of human aging is another root to the tree that has potential to lengthen healthspans.
The revolutionary science underlying the extension of the healthspan needs to be available to the whole world, Siegel says. “We need to take all these roots and come up with a way to improve the life of all mankind,” he says. “Everyone should be able to take advantage of this promising new world.”
Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.
Her Incredible Sense of Smell Helped Scientists Develop the First Parkinson's Test
Forty years ago, Joy Milne, a nurse from Perth, Scotland, noticed a musky odor coming from her husband, Les. At first, Milne thought the smell was a result of bad hygiene and badgered her husband to take longer showers. But when the smell persisted, Milne learned to live with it, not wanting to hurt her husband's feelings.
Twelve years after she first noticed the "woodsy" smell, Les was diagnosed at the age of 44 with Parkinson's Disease, a neurodegenerative condition characterized by lack of dopamine production and loss of movement. Parkinson's Disease currently affects more than 10 million people worldwide.
Milne spent the next several years believing the strange smell was exclusive to her husband. But to her surprise, at a local support group meeting in 2012, she caught the familiar scent once again, hanging over the group like a cloud. Stunned, Milne started to wonder if the smell was the result of Parkinson's Disease itself.
Milne's discovery led her to Dr. Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Together, Milne, Kunath, and a host of other scientists would use Milne's unusual sense of smell to develop a new diagnostic test, now in development and poised to revolutionize the treatment of Parkinson's Disease.
"Joy was in the audience during a talk I was giving on my work, which has to do with Parkinson's and stem cell biology," Kunath says. "During the patient engagement portion of the talk, she asked me if Parkinson's had a smell to it." Confused, Kunath said he had never heard of this – but for months after his talk he continued to turn the question over in his mind.
Kunath knew from his research that the skin's microbiome changes during different disease processes, releasing metabolites that can give off odors. In the medical literature, diseases like melanoma and Type 2 diabetes have been known to carry a specific scent – but no such connection had been made with Parkinson's. If people could smell Parkinson's, he thought, then it stood to reason that those metabolites could be isolated, identified, and used to potentially diagnose Parkinson's by their presence alone.
First, Kunath and his colleagues decided to test Milne's sense of smell. "I got in touch with Joy again and we designed a protocol to test her sense of smell without her having to be around patients," says Kunath, which could have affected the validity of the test. In his spare time, Kunath collected t-shirt samples from people diagnosed with Parkinson's and from others without the diagnosis and gave them to Milne to smell. In 100 percent of the samples, Milne was able to detect whether a person had Parkinson's based on smell alone. Amazingly, Milne was even able to detect the "Parkinson's scent" in a shirt from the control group – someone who did not have a Parkinson's diagnosis, but would go on to be diagnosed nine months later.
From the initial study, the team discovered that Parkinson's did have a smell, that Milne – inexplicably – could detect it, and that she could detect it long before diagnosis like she had with her husband, Les. But the experiments revealed other things that the team hadn't been expecting.
"One surprising thing we learned from that experiment was that the odor was always located in the back of the shirt – never in the armpit, where we expected the smell to be," Kunath says. "I had a chance meeting with a dermatologist and he said the smell was due to the patient's sebum, which are greasy secretions that are really dense on your upper back. We have sweat glands, instead of sebum, in our armpits." Patients with Parkinson's are also known to have increased sebum production.
With the knowledge that a patient's sebum was the source of the unusual smell, researchers could go on to investigate exactly what metabolites were in the sebum and in what amounts. Kunath, along with his associate, Dr. Perdita Barran, collected and analyzed sebum samples from 64 participants across the United Kingdom. Once the samples were collected, Barran and others analyzed it using a method called gas chromatography mass spectrometry, or GS-MC, which separated, weighed and helped identify the individual compounds present in each sebum sample.
Barran's team can now correctly identify Parkinson's in nine out of 10 patients – a much quicker and more accurate way to diagnose than what clinicians do now.
"The compounds we've identified in the sebum are not unique to people with Parkinson's, but they are differently expressed," says Barran, a professor of mass spectrometry at the University of Manchester. "So this test we're developing now is not a black-and-white, do-you-have-something kind of test, but rather how much of these compounds do you have compared to other people and other compounds." The team identified over a dozen compounds that were present in the sebum of Parkinson's patients in much larger amounts than the control group.
Using only the GC-MS and a sebum swab test, Barran's team can now correctly identify Parkinson's in nine out of 10 patients – a much quicker and more accurate way to diagnose than what clinicians do now.
"At the moment, a clinical diagnosis is based on the patient's physical symptoms," Barran says, and determining whether a patient has Parkinson's is often a long and drawn-out process of elimination. "Doctors might say that a group of symptoms looks like Parkinson's, but there are other reasons people might have those symptoms, and it might take another year before they're certain," Barran says. "Some of those symptoms are just signs of aging, and other symptoms like tremor are present in recovering alcoholics or people with other kinds of dementia." People under the age of 40 with Parkinson's symptoms, who present with stiff arms, are often misdiagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, she adds.
Additionally, by the time physical symptoms are present, Parkinson's patients have already lost a substantial amount of dopamine receptors – about sixty percent -- in the brain's basal ganglia. Getting a diagnosis before physical symptoms appear would mean earlier interventions that could prevent dopamine loss and preserve regular movement, Barran says.
"Early diagnosis is good if it means there's a chance of early intervention," says Barran. "It stops the process of dopamine loss, which means that motor symptoms potentially will not happen, or the onset of symptoms will be substantially delayed." Barran's team is in the processing of streamlining the sebum test so that definitive results will be ready in just two minutes.
"What we're doing right now will be a very inexpensive test, a rapid-screen test, and that will encourage people to self-sample and test at home," says Barran. In addition to diagnosing Parkinson's, she says, this test could also be potentially useful to determine if medications were at a therapeutic dose in people who have the disease, since the odor is strongest in people whose symptoms are least controlled by medication.
"When symptoms are under control, the odor is lower," Barran says. "Potentially this would allow patients and clinicians to see whether their symptoms are being managed properly with medication, or perhaps if they're being overmedicated." Hypothetically, patients could also use the test to determine if interventions like diet and exercise are effective at keeping Parkinson's controlled.
"We hope within the next two to five years we will have a test available."
Barran is now running another clinical trial – one that determines whether they can diagnose at an earlier stage and whether they can identify a difference in sebum samples between different forms of Parkinson's or diseases that have Parkinson's-like symptoms, such as Lewy Body Dementia.
"Within the next one to two years, we hope to be running a trial in the Manchester area for those people who do not have motor symptoms but are at risk for developing dementia due to symptoms like loss of smell and sleep difficulty," Barran had said in 2019. "If we can establish that, we can roll out a test that determines if you have Parkinson's or not with those first pre-motor symptoms, and then at what stage. We hope within the next two to five years we will have a test available."
In a 2022 study, published in the American Chemical Society, researchers used mass spectrometry to analyze sebum from skin swabs for the presence of the specific molecules. They found that some specific molecules are present only in people who have Parkinson’s. Now they hope that the same method can be used in regular diagnostic labs. The test, many years in the making, is inching its way to the clinic.
"We would likely first give this test to people who are at risk due to a genetic predisposition, or who are at risk based on prodomal symptoms, like people who suffer from a REM sleep disorder who have a 50 to 70 percent chance of developing Parkinson's within a ten year period," Barran says. "Those would be people who would benefit from early therapeutic intervention. For the normal population, it isn't beneficial at the moment to know until we have therapeutic interventions that can be useful."
Milne's husband, Les, passed away from complications of Parkinson's Disease in 2015. But thanks to him and the dedication of his wife, Joy, science may have found a way to someday prolong the lives of others with this devastating disease. Sometimes she can smell people who have Parkinson’s while in the supermarket or walking down the street but has been told by medical ethicists she cannot tell them, Milne said in an interview with the Guardian. But once the test becomes available in the clinics, it will do the job for her.
[Ed. Note: A older version of this hit article originally ran on September 3, 2019.]
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.