Researchers have developed a new technique that appears to be safe and around 80 percent effective in producing babies of the desired sex, a study suggests.
The researchers, including Professor Gianpiero Palermo from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, say the technique is ‘extremely safe as well as efficient, inexpensive, and ethically palatable.’
But the issue of sex selection still raises serious ethical concerns, and the selection of embryos on the basis of sex, without mitigating reasons such as sex-linked disease, is illegal in many countries.
Researchers, who published their findings Wednesday in PLOS One, set out a technique to separate and select the sperm beforehand, meaning the sex of the embryos could be determined.
The authors selected sperm based on whether they contained an X chromosome (making female offspring) or a Y chromosome (making male offspring), using density measures.
Sperm that contains an X chromosome are slightly heavier than sperm containing a Y chromosome, the study suggests.
The researchers wrote: ‘Although ethically debatable, expressing a sex preference for offspring is popular among couples, and not limited to those undergoing infertility treatment.
‘Sperm sex enrichment… enables the selection of embryos for the desired sex.
‘Our sex selection method does not increase the proportion of additional aneuploid embryos.
‘Therefore, it can be regarded as extremely safe as well as efficient, inexpensive, and ethically palatable.’
There are no restrictions on using technology to choose the sex of a child before it is born in the US.
In the UK, as in almost every other country, choosing your child’s gender is banned outside of specific circumstances.
The small trial was conducted using 1,317 couples and split into two groups, with 105 men in the study group in which the new technique was used.
According to the study, 59 couples in this group desired female offspring and the technique resulted in 79.1 percent (231/292) female embryos.
This brought about the birth of 16 girls without any abnormalities.
Forty-six couples desiring male offspring ended up with 79.6% male embryos (223/280), resulting in the birth of 13 healthy baby boys.
However, in the study the sex of the embryo chosen for transfer was not known.
Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent, in the UK, said: ‘The issue of sex selection is an ethically fraught one.
‘Selection of embryos on the basis of sex, without mitigating reason such as sex-linked disease, is illegal.
‘Separating sperm beforehand may provide a legal loophole in some countries but not the UK.
‘There have been numerous methods around for decades, some effective but potentially harmful, others dubious in their effectiveness.
‘I am convinced that the science is sound and that, instead of the usual 50:50 “coin toss” then a couple can get a baby with the desired sex a little under 80 percent of the time.’
Dr Channa Jayasena, head of andrology at Imperial College London, also in England, said: ‘The results show convincingly that this technique is able to select sperm to determine the sex of embryos made using those sperm.
‘However, their technical achievement is insignificant compared to the serious ethical concerns raised by the research.’
He continued, pointing out the potential issues this type of research runs into.
‘However, they propose sperm selection as an ‘ethical’ alternative to embryo selection. I find this incredible since sperm selection is just another way of selecting embryos to manipulate the sex of offspring, with detrimental societal implications,’ he said.
He added: ‘Though not described in the study, their technique might be adapted in the future to select for other bodily traits such as sperm containing a gene affecting skin or eye color.
‘This research therefore raises serious ethical concerns which need to be addressed urgently through regulation.’
Currently, couples seeking pregnancy through IVF will usually undergo the process of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).
This process scans the fertilized embryo for genetic disorders when it is in its earliest stages. It can also tell the parents their child’s gender.
It allows parents to get information about the embryo before it is implanted in a woman to be incubated. Experts say PGD is around 99 percent accurate.
This process requires feralization, though. The Cornell researchers’ new method can detect whether the child will be male or female by using a sperm cell alone.
For some, who may be uneasy about discarding a fertilized embryo, this new process could be less morally dubious.
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