Anna Buckley

This is how fertility doctors are able to design a baby's eye color

July 24, 2018 12:31 pm

In 1978, Louise Brown was born, marking the historic birth of the very first baby conceived by in vitro fertilization. In the years following her birth, over 5 million babies have been born through IVF and similar reproductive technology, and the technology itself has evolved immensely. But despite the fact that IVF is becoming increasingly common, the concept of medically engineering a baby is still puzzling to many. This feeling of mystery and, at times, fear has multiplied since in vitro technology was first introduced.

For those who are unfamiliar, the concept of designing babies may bring up images from the opening scenes of Gattaca. We imagine a dystopian world where parents are pressured to design babies that fall into a capitalist ideals of beauty and ability, and soon, “regularly” fertilized babies are shafted to the basement where they mop up the mess of the elite.

When fearful fantasies of fiction are removed, it’s apparent that the newest forms of reproductive technology can do much good. For parents worried about conceiving a child prone to disease, this technology can enable them to prevent their babies from carrying certain genetic defects. Less urgently, it can also enable parents to plan the gender of their children for a more balanced family. And now, in a far more cosmetic development, there is the technology to predict eye color.

Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg has been a leading force in the research behind IVF and other related reproductive technologies. His clinic, The Fertility Institutes, mark the very first to offer parents the option to choose their future child’s eye color. In an attempt to understand how this technology works and to lessen our apprehension that it could enable eugenics, HelloGiggles interviewed Dr. Steinberg about how fertility doctors are able to predict eye color.

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HelloGiggles: Do both parents both need to have certain genes in order to choose an eye color?

Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg: Eye color is not as simple as the dominant-recessive characteristics for many other traits. Eye color is an interplay of several genetic SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) or minor variations in the eye color genes. So, yes, parents must carry the SNP’s necessary to produce a given eye color, not as an entire gene but only as a small variation in a gene. They may carry these SNPs even if they do not have the eye color they seek in their child. One exciting part of this work is that we can screen with testing each parent in advance to determine if they have the SNPs necessary to have a child with any given eye color.

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HG: Is it possible for parents to determine hair color as well? If so, does that use the same technology?

Dr. Steinberg: Hair color is much more complex than eye color. Over 104 genes involved. We will determine hair color in the same basic way but there are a lot of genes to look at and interpreting how the genes are expressed is a big deal. We are about 18 to 36 months away from hair color.

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HG: Have you already provided this service for clients? If so, have you noticed a pattern in which eye colors people prefer?

Dr. Steinberg: Our original work with this began several years ago in Mexico. We sought a population where the majority had one eye color (in Mexico, brown) but we knew that the potential existed for that same population to carry in significant numbers, the SNPs for alternate eye colors. With the colonization of Mexico by Spain in the early 1500s, the Spanish introduced their blue and green SNPs to Mexico and 500 years later, with technology that was much less refined than what we have now, we were able to identify the necessary SNPs and take advantage of this is eye color selection. We did have success but not nearly as often as what we are able to achieve with today’s more advanced techniques.

HG: How do you think this could affect the gene pool of those able to afford this service?

Dr. Steinberg: We are not altering or manipulating any genetics in any way so we are not “affecting” genetics in any way. We are not “making” hazel or green or brown or blue eyes. Parents must do this as they have since the beginning of time. We are, however, letting parents know before they become pregnant what their choices are. This applies not only to eye color, but in every case, we screen for hundreds of potentially serious genetic disorders.

HG: What happens if a couple receives a different eye color than requested?

Dr. Steinberg: We explain in great detail that this technology, unlike gender selection that is 99.95 accurate, is not 100% exact. We are quoting a 74-88% accuracy rate. These numbers will improve significantly as we accumulate more data with our new more accurate methods.

HG: How do you respond to the ethical and psychological opposition to the concept of designer babies? Do you believe there’s something insidious about designing a human being?

Dr. Steinberg: I am often faced with ethical deliberations for which there are no guidelines and no acceptable references. Modern medicine is “designing” at a faster pace than ever in history. Would we be criticized for detecting a breast cancer gene in a female that wants to have a baby girl and wants to assure that this new human does not carry a gene more likely than not to produce a life threatening breast cancer illness? Should we not screen this woman and her embryos for the presence of this gene?

If we do screen, are we “designing” a human that will not face the threat of this disease? If we do not screen, are we designing a human with a known breast cancer threat? “Designer babies” are inevitable. The process has already begun and techniques and demands for the technology will improve and become more widespread. I predict that in the near future, it may be considered substandard to not design humans free of potentially crippling or devastating afflictions or illnesses.