People go on dating apps for many different reasons, so it is natural that we all end up having different preferences in which one to use. Whether you are after a specific zodiac sign, your secret crush, or wish to explore ethical non-monogamy, chances are there will be something out there for you. If, however, you have for some reason a specific interest in genetics, and feel like you would never find the perfect app to fulfil your needs, then I have some good news—soon, you will have access to the perfect app for you.
digiD8 is a new dating app that will allow users to match with potential love interests according to their genetics. Yes, you read that right. The app was created by Harvard professor, scientist and geneticist George Church, and is currently still under development at Harvard University. Its aim is simple: to make sure that those who share a genetic mutation never procreate and produce offsprings with a potential inherited disease.
Needless to say, when the news of this app got out it created a big controversy, and understandably so. Church was accused of partaking in what is called eugenics, which is the science of improving a population by controlled breeding. With this new venture, which he calls “whole-genome dating”, Church would have the power to select who can and cannot use his app purely based on their genetics—something that users have no control over, and something that no society should be striving towards, if we’re being honest.
Church’s lab, which is in charge of developing this app, has also received research funding from the notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein—so of course, the questioning of the app, the motives, the lab and Church himself is unsurprising.
digiD8 also raises the question of where do we draw the line when it comes to incorporating science and technology into the most natural and humane aspects of our lives? Church defends his project and finds the comparison of his app to eugenics to be “ludicrous”, stating in a recent FAQ that “[we] are adamantly opposed to eugenics, of superseding personal choice with governmental or community judgment, bullying, and coercion,” and that, instead, the aim is to advocate for “personal choice.”
While the idea is indeed dystopian and precarious, some argue that it is not eugenics. Eugenics is most commonly forced through imposed breeding, sterilisation or extermination of individuals, whereas Church claims he only wants to help people. The main idea is to use DNA comparisons in order to assess whether those matching do not carry any genetic mutation that could cause diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs disease—which are both extremely rare and often fatal.
Children risk developing the disease if they inherit two risky genes—one from each parent, the chance of which is normally 25 per cent. Because these diseases are so rare, according to the app’s FAQ, users on digiD8 would still be compatible with 95 per cent of other users. Medicine already tries to avoid such conditions, by letting couples who are trying to have a child use preconception genetic testing, in which IVF embryos are selected on the basis of their genes, with some parents choosing abortion after a negative test result.
But even if this can serve for the greater good in medicine, choosing to prevent the birth of humans because they may suffer from a disease is incredibly ableist. While it is every parent’s ultimate goal to see their kids healthy and happy, going as far as choosing their genes seems unnatural and discriminatory.
Ethics pushed aside, perhaps people should think twice before handing over their DNA data over to anyone, let alone a dating app. Social networks tend to have a history of exploiting our private data, and while Church promises that the app will “support a new model in which an individual’s genomic data are not shared with companies or any other individual,” this is a phrase we’ve heard many times before. Just like many other new technologies, approach this one with extra caution and skepticism.
A New Jersey-based startup developed what it claims to be a genetic test capable of predicting a number of common diseases in embryos. The company, called Genomic Predictions, has been approached by dozens of parents-to-be from across the world in hopes of having the start-up help them ‘weed out’ embryos more inclined to develop certain diseases later in life, such as cancer and diabetes. Although Genomic Prediction’s new test is in its infancy, the company has already come under fire by many in the academic and scientific communities, with some depicting the test as both impractical and unethical.
Genomic Predictions has been around for several years now, using various computing technologies, AI and machine learning to research genomes and discover novel ways of predicting phenotypes. “We’ve always thought that one of the best and earliest applications of this would be embryo selection because we can help families have a healthy child,” said Stephen Hsu, the company’s co-founder, in an interview for GEN.
Last month, Genomic Predictions finally unveiled a test which it claims can utilise DNA data to predict the likelihood of embryos from an IVF procedure to develop any of 11 types of diseases. As reported by MIT Review, the test, called LifeView, will measure IVF embryos’ DNA from hundreds of thousands of genetic positions and generate estimates regarding chances of having diseases such as diabetes, heart attacks, and five types of cancer. The test would also alert parents about how likely it is that their child will end up among the shortest 2 per cent of the population or the lowest 2 per cent in intelligence.
Genomic Predictions then hands parents report cards containing the testing results for each embryo so they could implant the ones they deem to be the healthiest out of the batch.
So far, the company reported that 12 clinics around the world—in Nigeria, Peru, Thailand, Taiwan, and the US—will order its new test. The few interested clients are mostly well-off professionals wanting to reduce their child’s risk of having diseases that may run in the family. Genomic Prediction’s first set of clients, for instance, is a gay couple undergoing IVF with a surrogate mother who want to ensure their child won’t have breast cancer. Another couple, who have two children with autism, want their third child to be neuro-typical; something they hope the LifeView test could help them achieve.
For the most part, however, clinics are extremely hesitant about ordering this new test, as many scientific experts and researchers voiced harsh criticism of it. “It is irresponsible to suggest that the science is at the point where we could reliably predict which embryo to select to minimize the risk of disease. The science simply isn’t there yet,” tweeted Graham Coop, a geneticist at the University of California, Davis. A research by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem also concluded that attempting to predict the height and intelligence of an embryo is pretty much a futile attempt at this point in time. Others, such as Santiago Munne, an embryo testing expert and entrepreneur, suggest that the great uncertainty that comes with this type of testing would be off-putting for many doctors and client as well as a source for potential disappointment.
And let’s not forget about the immense psychological strain such a test can place on children who find out they’ve been ‘selected’ out of a pool of embryos in order to be healthy. What if they do end up developing one of these diseases after all this money had been spent?
While a parent’s urge to do all in their power to prevent their child from being ill is understandable, this genetic selection process sets us on a very slippery slope. It seems that endeavours such as LifeView constitute a mere hop, skip and a jump away from genetically editing babies, and cater to our growing appetite to design what we perceive to be the ‘perfect human’. Naturally, we should support the scientific community’s efforts to find cures and solutions to prevent terrible diseases, but is ‘phenotyping’ the answer? This approach all but ignores the slew of external and environmental factors that heavily impact someone’s chances of developing such diseases, including diet, lifestyle, stress, and someone’s mental state. It could be argued that no less attention should be placed on tackling the latter, as opposed to try and manufacture a ‘flawless’ human being.
So far, tests like LifeView appeal only to couples using IVF, a process that is long, uncertain, invasive and prohibitively expensive. Some at Genomic Prediction, however, contend that IVF will be “the future”, claiming that even fertile couples would choose to undergo the process in order to reduce the chances of disease in their children. As such technologies proliferate, we must remain critical and alert of their application and the direction in which it takes our society. Crafting the ‘perfect’ human and labouring to prevent any flaws in our children could cost us a great deal. Much more than an IVF treatment.