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.
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Nir Barzilai, a geroscientist, which means he studies the biology of aging. Barzilai directs the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
My first question for Dr. Barzilai was: why do we age? And is there anything to be done about it? His answers were encouraging. We can’t live forever, but we have some control over the process, as he argues in his book, Age Later.
Dr. Barzilai told me that centenarians differ from the rest of us because they have unique gene mutations that help them stay healthy longer. For most of us, the words “gene mutations” spell trouble - we associate these words with cancer or neurodegenerative diseases, but apparently not all mutations are bad.
Centenarians may have essentially won the genetic lottery, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are predestined to have a specific lifespan and health span, or the amount of time spent living productively and enjoyably. “Aging is a mother of all diseases,” Dr. Barzilai told me. And as a disease, it can be targeted by therapeutics. Dr. Barzilai’s team is already running clinical trials on such therapeutics — and the results are promising.
More about Dr. Barzilai: He is scientific director of AFAR, American Federation for Aging Research. As part of his work, Dr. Barzilai studies families of centenarians and their genetics to learn how the rest of us can learn and benefit from their super-aging. He also organizing a clinical trial to test a specific drug that may slow aging.
Age Later: Health Span, Life Span, and the New Science of Longevity https://www.amazon.com/Age-Later-Healthiest-Sharpest-Centenarians/dp/1250230853
American Federation for Aging Research https://www.afar.org
Metformin as a Tool to Target Aging
Benefits of Metformin in Attenuating the Hallmarks of Aging https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7347426/
The Longevity Genes Project https://www.einsteinmed.edu/centers/aging/longevity-genes-project/
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
Awash in a fluid finely calibrated to keep it alive, a human eye rests inside a transparent cubic device. This ECaBox, or Eyes in a Care Box, is a one-of-a-kind system built by scientists at Barcelona’s Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG). Their goal is to preserve human eyes for transplantation and related research.
In recent years, scientists have learned to transplant delicate organs such as the liver, lungs or pancreas, but eyes are another story. Even when preserved at the average transplant temperature of 4 Centigrade, they last for 48 hours max. That's one explanation for why transplanting the whole eye isn’t possible—only the cornea, the dome-shaped, outer layer of the eye, can withstand the procedure. The retina, the layer at the back of the eyeball that turns light into electrical signals, which the brain converts into images, is extremely difficult to transplant because it's packed with nerve tissue and blood vessels.
These challenges also make it tough to research transplantation. “This greatly limits their use for experiments, particularly when it comes to the effectiveness of new drugs and treatments,” said Maria Pia Cosma, a biologist at Barcelona’s Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), whose team is working on the ECaBox.
Eye transplants are desperately needed, but they're nowhere in sight. About 12.7 million people worldwide need a corneal transplant, which means that only one in 70 people who require them, get them. The gaps are international. Eye banks in the United Kingdom are around 20 percent below the level needed to supply hospitals, while Indian eye banks, which need at least 250,000 corneas per year, collect only around 45 to 50 thousand donor corneas (and of those 60 to 70 percent are successfully transplanted).
As for retinas, it's impossible currently to put one into the eye of another person. Artificial devices can be implanted to restore the sight of patients suffering from severe retinal diseases, but the number of people around the world with such “bionic eyes” is less than 600, while in America alone 11 million people have some type of retinal disease leading to severe vision loss. Add to this an increasingly aging population, commonly facing various vision impairments, and you have a recipe for heavy burdens on individuals, the economy and society. In the U.S. alone, the total annual economic impact of vision problems was $51.4 billion in 2017.
Even if you try growing tissues in the petri dish route into organoids mimicking the function of the human eye, you will not get the physiological complexity of the structure and metabolism of the real thing, according to Cosma. She is a member of a scientific consortium that includes researchers from major institutions from Spain, the U.K., Portugal, Italy and Israel. The consortium has received about $3.8 million from the European Union to pursue innovative eye research. Her team’s goal is to give hope to at least 2.2 billion people across the world afflicted with a vision impairment and 33 million who go through life with avoidable blindness.
Their method? Resuscitating cadaveric eyes for at least a month.
If we succeed, it will be the first intact human model of the eye capable of exploring and analyzing regenerative processes ex vivo. -- Maria Pia Cosma.
“We proposed to resuscitate eyes, that is to restore the global physiology and function of human explanted tissues,” Cosma said, referring to living tissues extracted from the eye and placed in a medium for culture. Their ECaBox is an ex vivo biological system, in which eyes taken from dead donors are placed in an artificial environment, designed to preserve the eye’s temperature and pH levels, deter blood clots, and remove the metabolic waste and toxins that would otherwise spell their demise.
Scientists work on resuscitating eyes in the lab of Maria Pia Cosma.
Courtesy of Maria Pia Cosma.
“One of the great challenges is the passage of the blood in the capillary branches of the eye, what we call long-term perfusion,” Cosma said. Capillaries are an intricate network of very thin blood vessels that transport blood, nutrients and oxygen to cells in the body’s organs and systems. To maintain the garland-shaped structure of this network, sufficient amounts of oxygen and nutrients must be provided through the eye circulation and microcirculation. “Our ambition is to combine perfusion of the vessels with artificial blood," along with using a synthetic form of vitreous, or the gel-like fluid that lets in light and supports the the eye's round shape, Cosma said.
The scientists use this novel setup with the eye submersed in its medium to keep the organ viable, so they can test retinal function. “If we succeed, we will ensure full functionality of a human organ ex vivo. It will be the first intact human model of the eye capable of exploring and analyzing regenerative processes ex vivo,” Cosma added.
A rapidly developing field of regenerative medicine aims to stimulate the body's natural healing processes and restore or replace damaged tissues and organs. But for people with retinal diseases, regenerative medicine progress has been painfully slow. “Experiments on rodents show progress, but the risks for humans are unacceptable,” Cosma said.
The ECaBox could boost progress with regenerative medicine for people with retinal diseases, which has been painfully slow because human experiments involving their eyes are too risky. “We will test emerging treatments while reducing animal research, and greatly accelerate the discovery and preclinical research phase of new possible treatments for vision loss at significantly reduced costs,” Cosma explained. Much less time and money would be wasted during the drug discovery process. Their work may even make it possible to transplant the entire eyeball for those who need it.
“It is a very exciting project,” said Sanjay Sharma, a professor of ophthalmology and epidemiology at Queen's University, in Kingston, Canada. “The ability to explore and monitor regenerative interventions will increasingly be of importance as we develop therapies that can regenerate ocular tissues, including the retina.”
Seemingly, there's no sacred religious text or a holy book prohibiting the practice of eye donation.
But is the world ready for eye transplants? “People are a bit weird or very emotional about donating their eyes as compared to other organs,” Cosma said. And much can be said about the problem of eye donor shortage. Concerns include disfigurement and healthcare professionals’ fear that the conversation about eye donation will upset the departed person’s relatives because of cultural or religious considerations. As just one example, Sharma noted the paucity of eye donations in his home country, Canada.
Yet, experts like Sharma stress the importance of these donations for both the recipients and their family members. “It allows them some psychological benefit in a very difficult time,” he said. So why are global eye banks suffering? Is it because the eyes are the windows to the soul?
Seemingly, there's no sacred religious text or a holy book prohibiting the practice of eye donation. In fact, most major religions of the world permit and support organ transplantation and donation, and by extension eye donation, because they unequivocally see it as an “act of neighborly love and charity.” In Hinduism, the concept of eye donation aligns with the Hindu principle of daan or selfless giving, where individuals donate their organs or body after death to benefit others and contribute to society. In Islam, eye donation is a form of sadaqah jariyah, a perpetual charity, as it can continue to benefit others even after the donor's death.
Meanwhile, Buddhist masters teach that donating an organ gives another person the chance to live longer and practice dharma, the universal law and order, more meaningfully; they also dismiss misunderstandings of the type “if you donate an eye, you’ll be born without an eye in the next birth.” And Christian teachings emphasize the values of love, compassion, and selflessness, all compatible with organ donation, eye donation notwithstanding; besides, those that will have a house in heaven, will get a whole new body without imperfections and limitations.
The explanation for people’s resistance may lie in what Deepak Sarma, a professor of Indian religions and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, calls “street interpretation” of religious or spiritual dogmas. Consider the mechanism of karma, which is about the causal relation between previous and current actions. “Maybe some Hindus believe there is karma in the eyes and, if the eye gets transplanted into another person, they will have to have that karmic card from now on,” Sarma said. “Even if there is peculiar karma due to an untimely death–which might be interpreted by some as bad karma–then you have the karma of the recipient, which is tremendously good karma, because they have access to these body parts, a tremendous gift,” Sarma said. The overall accumulation is that of good karma: “It’s a beautiful kind of balance,” Sarma said.
For the Jews, Christians, and Muslims who believe in the physical resurrection of the body that will be made new in an afterlife, the already existing body is sacred since it will be the basis of a new refashioned body in an afterlife.---Omar Sultan Haque.
With that said, Sarma believes it is a fallacy to personify or anthropomorphize the eye, which doesn’t have a soul, and stresses that the karma attaches itself to the soul and not the body parts. But for scholars like Omar Sultan Haque—a psychiatrist and social scientist at Harvard Medical School, investigating questions across global health, anthropology, social psychology, and bioethics—the hierarchy of sacredness of body parts is entrenched in human psychology. You cannot equate the pinky toe with the face, he explained.
“The eyes are the window to the soul,” Haque said. “People have a hierarchy of body parts that are considered more sacred or essential to the self or soul, such as the eyes, face, and brain.” In his view, the techno-utopian transhumanist communities (especially those in Silicon Valley) have reduced the totality of a person to a mere material object, a “wet robot” that knows no sacredness or hierarchy of human body parts. “But for the Jews, Christians, and Muslims who believe in the physical resurrection of the body that will be made new in an afterlife, the [already existing] body is sacred since it will be the basis of a new refashioned body in an afterlife,” Haque said. “You cannot treat the body like any old material artifact, or old chair or ragged cloth, just because materialistic, secular ideologies want so,” he continued.
For Cosma and her peers, however, the very definition of what is alive or not is a bit semantic. “As soon as we die, the electrophysiological activity in the eye stops,” she said. “The goal of the project is to restore this activity as soon as possible before the highly complex tissue of the eye starts degrading.” Cosma’s group doesn’t yet know when they will be able to keep the eyes alive and well in the ECaBox, but the consensus is that the sooner the better. Hopefully, the taboos and fears around the eye donations will dissipate around the same time.