Peggy Clark was 12 weeks pregnant when she went in for a nuchal translucency (NT) scan to see whether her unborn son had Down syndrome. The sonographic scan measures how much fluid has accumulated at the back of the baby's neck: the more fluid, the higher the likelihood of an abnormality. The technician said the baby was in such an odd position, the test couldn't be done. Clark, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, was told to come back in a week and a half to see if the baby had moved.
"With the growing sophistication of prenatal tests, it seems that the more questions are answered, the more new ones arise."
"It was like the baby was saying, 'I don't want you to know,'" she recently recalled.
When they went back, they found the baby had a thickened neck. It's just one factor in identifying Down's, but it's a strong indication. At that point, she was 13 weeks and four days pregnant. She went to the doctor the next day for a blood test. It took another two weeks for the results, which again came back positive, though there was still a .3% margin of error. Clark said she knew she wanted to terminate the pregnancy if the baby had Down's, but she didn't want the guilt of knowing there was a small chance the tests were wrong. At that point, she was too late to do a Chorionic villus sampling (CVS), when chorionic villi cells are removed from the placenta and sequenced. And she was too early to do an amniocentesis, which isn't done until between 14 and 20 weeks of the pregnancy. So she says she had to sit and wait, calling those few weeks "brutal."
By the time they did the amnio, she was already nearly 18 weeks pregnant and was getting really big. When that test also came back positive, she made the anguished decision to end the pregnancy.
Now, three years after Clark's painful experience, a newer form of prenatal testing routinely gives would-be parents more information much earlier on, especially for women who are over 35. As soon as nine weeks into their pregnancies, women can have a simple blood test to determine if there are abnormalities in the DNA of chromosomes 21, which indicates Down syndrome, as well as in chromosomes 13 and 18. Using next-generation sequencing technologies, the test separates out and examines circulating fetal cells in the mother's blood, which eliminates the risks of drawing fluid directly from the fetus or placenta.
"Finding out your baby has Down syndrome at 11 or 12 weeks is much easier for parents to make any decision they may want to make, as opposed to 16 or 17 weeks," said Dr. Leena Nathan, an obstetrician-gynecologist in UCLA's healthcare system. "People are much more willing or able to perhaps make a decision to terminate the pregnancy."
But with the growing sophistication of prenatal tests, it seems that the more questions are answered, the more new ones arise--questions that previous generations have never had to face. And as genomic sequencing improves in its predictive accuracy at the earliest stages of life, the challenges only stand to increase. Imagine, for example, learning your child's lifetime risk of breast cancer when you are ten weeks pregnant. Would you terminate if you knew she had a 70 percent risk? What about 40 percent? Lots of hard questions. Few easy answers. Once the cost of whole genome sequencing drops low enough, probably within the next five to ten years according to experts, such comprehensive testing may become the new standard of care. Welcome to the future of prospective parenthood.
"In one way, it's a blessing to have this information. On the other hand, it's very difficult to deal with."
How Did We Get Here?
Prenatal testing is not new. In 1979, amniocentesis was used to detect whether certain inherited diseases had been passed on to the fetus. Through the 1980s, parents could be tested to see if they carried disease like Tay-Sachs, Sickle cell anemia, Cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. By the early 1990s, doctors could test for even more genetic diseases and the CVS test was beginning to become available.
A few years later, a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) emerged, in which embryos created in a lab with sperm and harvested eggs would be allowed to grow for several days and then cells would be removed and tested to see if any carried genetic diseases. Those that weren't affected could be transferred back to the mother. Once in vitro fertilization (IVF) took off, so did genetic testing. The labs test the embryonic cells and get them back to the IVF facilities within 24 hours so that embryo selection can occur. In the case of IVF, genetic tests are done so early, parents don't even have to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. Embryos with issues often aren't even used.
"It was a very expensive endeavor but exciting to see our ability to avoid disorders, especially for families that don't want to terminate a pregnancy," said Sara Katsanis, an expert in genetic testing who teaches at Duke University. "In one way, it's a blessing to have this information (about genetic disorders). On the other hand, it's very difficult to deal with. To make that decision about whether to terminate a pregnancy is very hard."
Just Because We Can, Does It Mean We Should?
Parents in the future may not only find out whether their child has a genetic disease but will be able to potentially fix the problem through a highly controversial process called gene editing. But because we can, does it mean we should? So far, genes have been edited in other species, but to date, the procedure has not been used on an unborn child for reproductive purposes apart from research.
"There's a lot of bioethics debate and convening of groups to try to figure out where genetic manipulation is going to be useful and necessary, and where it is going to need some restrictions," said Katsanis. She notes that it's very useful in areas like cancer research, so one wouldn't want to over-regulate it.
There are already some criteria as to which genes can be manipulated and which should be left alone, said Evan Snyder, professor and director of the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at Sanford Children's Health Research Center in La Jolla, Calif. He noted that genes don't stand in isolation. That is, if you modify one that causes disease, will it disrupt others? There may be unintended consequences, he added.
"As the technical dilemmas get fixed, some of the ethical dilemmas get fixed. But others arise. It's kind of like ethical whack-a-mole."
But gene editing of embryos may take years to become an acceptable practice, if ever, so a more pressing issue concerns the rationale behind embryo selection during IVF. Prospective parents can end up with anywhere from zero to thirty embryos from the procedure and must choose only one (rarely two) to implant. Since embryos are routinely tested now for certain diseases, and selected or discarded based on that information, should it be ethical—and legal—to make selections based on particular traits, too? To date so far, parents can select for gender, but no other traits. Whether trait selection becomes routine is a matter of time and business opportunity, Katsanis said. So far, the old-fashioned way of making a baby combined with the luck of the draw seems to be the preferred method for the marketplace. But that could change.
"You can easily see a family deciding not to implant a lethal gene for Tay-Sachs or Duchene or Cystic fibrosis. It becomes more ethically challenging when you make a decision to implant girls and not any of the boys," said Snyder. "And then as we get better and better, we can start assigning genes to certain skills and this starts to become science fiction."
Once a pregnancy occurs, prospective parents of all stripes will face decisions about whether to keep the fetus based on the information that increasingly robust prenatal testing will provide. What influences their decision is the crux of another ethical knot, said Snyder. A clear-cut rationale would be if the baby is anencephalic, or it has no brain. A harder one might be, "It's a girl, and I wanted a boy," or "The child will only be 5' 2" tall in adulthood."
"Those are the extremes, but the ultimate question is: At what point is it a legitimate response to say, I don't want to keep this baby?'" he said. Of course, people's responses will vary, so the bigger conundrum for society is: Where should a line be drawn—if at all? Should a woman who is within the legal scope of termination (up to around 24 weeks, though it varies by state) be allowed to terminate her pregnancy for any reason whatsoever? Or must she have a so-called "legitimate" rationale?
"As the technical dilemmas get fixed, some of the ethical dilemmas get fixed. But others arise. It's kind of like ethical whack-a-mole," Snyder said.
One of the newer moles to emerge is, if one can fix a damaged gene, for how long should it be fixed? In one child? In the family's whole line, going forward? If the editing is done in the embryo right after the egg and sperm have united and before the cells begin dividing and becoming specialized, when, say, there are just two or four cells, it will likely affect that child's entire reproductive system and thus all of that child's progeny going forward.
"This notion of changing things forever is a major debate," Snyder said. "It literally gets into metaphysics. On the one hand, you could say, well, wouldn't it be great to get rid of Cystic fibrosis forever? What bad could come of getting rid of a mutant gene forever? But we're not smart enough to know what other things the gene might be doing, and how disrupting one thing could affect this network."
As with any tool, there are risks and benefits, said Michael Kalichman, Director of the Research Ethics Program at the University of California San Diego. While we can envision diverse benefits from a better understanding of human biology and medicine, it is clear that our species can also misuse those tools – from stigmatizing children with certain genetic traits as being "less than," aka dystopian sci-fi movies like Gattaca, to judging parents for making sure their child carries or doesn't carry a particular trait.
"The best chance to ensure that the benefits of this technology will outweigh the risks," Kalichman said, "is for all stakeholders to engage in thoughtful conversations, strive for understanding of diverse viewpoints, and then develop strategies and policies to protect against those uses that are considered to be problematic."
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.