Breast Cancer Research and the Manipulation of the BRCA1 gene
“A British woman has made history by conceiving the country’s first ‘designer baby’ guaranteed to be free from hereditary breast cancer.” – Daily Telegraph, London, June 26.
When I read this provocative lead on the Telegraph’s Web site last week, I cringed. Guaranteed, huh? What an incredibly bold statement. There are no guarantees in this life, especially where health is concerned. And smart as we humans are, we’re crazy to believe that we can exert complete control over who gets sick and who stays well. What kind of false hope are stories like this giving to prospective parents, those who carry genes that potentially put their future children’s health at risk?
It seems that a couple in Great Britain, anxious to have children, was understandably reluctant to run the risk of them inheriting the BRCA1 gene. This gene, which increases a woman’s lifetime risk for breast cancer to 50%-80% (from the normal 13%), was carried by the husband, whose mother, grandmother, and sister had all had breast cancer. Clearly, the couple’s fears were well-founded.
Thus, the 27-year-old woman underwent in-vitro fertilization in order to “check out” embryos for the potential genetic defect before having them implanted. Of 11 embryos, tested when they were three days old, six were found to carry the gene. These six were destroyed. Two of the five “healthy” embryos were frozen for possible future use; two were implanted, resulting in one pregnancy. The woman is now 14 weeks pregnant. Her baby won’t carry the BRCA1 gene.
But as anyone who studies breast cancer knows, this doesn’t guarantee her (or him) from getting breast cancer. Sure, it lowers her risk; but fully 75% of women who get breast cancer do so without any known risk factors at all. Was lowering the risk of one person getting breast cancer worth destroying six others who potentially would have lived healthy lives?
I guess it depends on how you define the beginning of life—birth, or conception? I’m not about to dive into that difficult subject, but I’ll leave it at this: personally, I’d be uncomfortable manipulating lives in this way.
On the other hand, I feel good about what Salt Lake City resident Geeta Shah has done to help ensure that she’ll become a mother some day. The 30-year-old Shah, currently undergoing chemo for breast cancer and worried that she’d become menopausal as a result, has frozen 18 of her eggs.
Men having chemo routinely freeze their sperm. In fact, all three of Lance Armstrong’s children were conceived using the sperm he froze before undergoing chemo for brain cancer.
And while it’s becoming fairly common for women to freeze fertilized embryos, freezing eggs is much less successful. As recently as last year, no American woman had ever given birth to a child conceived from her own frozen egg.
But what’s a young, single woman with breast cancer to do, one who hopes to be a mother but hasn’t yet picked out a partner? Shah actually selected donor sperm for some of her eggs. But others she’s left unfertilized, in case she becomes infertile, and eventually meets a man with whom she’d like to have children.
Geeta’s mother, Madhuri, summed her daughter’s situation up like this: “In all of the sadness, this is a happy thing.”