Nathan Treff was diagnosed with type 1
diabetes at 24. It’s a disease that runs in
families, but it has complex causes. More
than one gene is involved. And the environment plays a role too.
So you don’t know who will get it.
Tre;’s grandfather had it, and lost a leg.
But Tre;’s three young kids are fine, so
far. He’s crossing his fingers they won’t
develop it later.
Now Treff, an in vitro fertilization
specialist, is working on a radical way
to change the odds. Using a combina-
tion of computer models and DNA tests,
the startup company he’s working with,
Genomic Prediction, thinks it has a way
of predicting which IVF embryos in a
laboratory dish would be most likely to
develop type 1 diabetes or other com-
plex diseases. Armed with such statisti-
cal scorecards, doctors and parents could
huddle and choose to avoid embryos with
IVF clinics already test the DNA of
embryos to spot rare diseases, like cystic fibrosis, caused by defects in a single
gene. But these “preimplantation” tests are
poised for a big leap forward as it becomes
possible to look more deeply at an embryo’s
genome and create broad statistical forecasts about the person it would become.
The advance is occurring, say scien-
tists, thanks to a growing flood of genetic
data collected from large population stud-
ies. As statistical models known as pre-
dictors gobble up information about the
DNA and health of hundreds of thousands
of people, they’re getting more accurate
at spotting the genetic patterns that fore-
shadow disease risk. But they have a con-
troversial side, since the same techniques
can be used to project the eventual height,
weight, skin tone, and even intelligence of
an IVF embryo.
In addition to Tre;, who is the company’s chief scientific o;cer, the founders of Genomic Prediction are Stephen
Hsu, a physicist who is vice president for
research at Michigan State University, and
Laurent Tellier, a Danish bioinformatician
who is CEO. Both Hsu and Tellier have
been closely involved with a project in
China that aims to sequence the genomes
of mathematical geniuses, hoping to shed
light on the genetic basis of IQ.
The company’s plans rely on a tidal wave
of new knowledge showing how small
genetic di;erences can add up to make
one person, but not another, likely to end
up with diabetes, a neurotic personality,
or a taller or shorter height. Already, such
“polygenic risk scores” are used in direct-to-consumer gene tests, such as reports
from 23andMe that tell customers their
genetic chance of being overweight.
For adults, risk scores are little more
than a novelty. But if the same information
is generated about an embryo, it could have
existential consequences: who will be born,
and who stays in a laboratory freezer?
“I remind my partners, ‘You know, if
my parents had this test, I wouldn’t be
here,’” says Tre;, a prize-winning expert
on diagnostic technology who is the
author of more than 90 scientific papers.
Genomic Prediction was founded this
year and has raised funds from venture
capitalists in Silicon Valley, though it
declines to say who they are. Tellier says
the company plans to o;er reports to IVF
doctors and parents identifying “
outliers”—those embryos whose genetic scores
put them at the wrong end of a statisti-
Will You Be Among the First to
Pick Your Kids’ Genes?
As machine learning unlocks predictions from DNA databases, scientists say parents
could have choices never before possible.