GenePeeks, a New York Start-Up, has partnered with a sperm bank in Manhattan, the Manhattan Cryobank, and will test the virtual progeny of sperm donors and clients to screen for certain genetic diseases. GenePeeks plans to genotype all donors in the sperm bank as well as future clients. They will then test and screen the virtual potential offspring using algorithms that can computationally predict up to 1 million theoretical sperm.
GenePeeks is the brain-child of Anne Morriss and Lee Silver. Anne Morriss was motivated in part by a personal experience in using a sperm donor to start a family. Her son was conceived using a donor who unfortunately shared with Morriss, the gene for an inherited disorder called MCADD.
MCADD (medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency) prevents fat conversion to sugar and can be fatal if not treated in early infancy. Anne Morriss was lucky; her son was diagnosed during newborn screening tests.
Professor Lee Silver, Anne Morriss’s business partner, is a geneticist and bioethics expert at Princeton University. He explained the GenePeeks process in an interview with BBC news:
“We get the DNA sequence from two prospective parents. We simulate the process of reproduction, forming virtual sperm and virtual eggs. We put them together to form a hypothetical child genome.
“Then we can look at that hypothetical genome and – with all the tools of modern genetics – determine the risk that the genome will result in a child with disease. We’re looking directly for disease and not carrier status. For each pair of people that we’re going to analyse, we make 10,000 hypothetical children.”
The process is repeated for each client and each donor, screening for some 600 known single-gene recessive conditions. And this method, according to Silver, could be extended to screen for the genetic risk for other more common diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
Anne Morriss also sees GenePeeks technology becoming more mainstream in the future,
“I believe anyone thinking about a pregnancy would benefit from this kind of testing. The industry is ready to move faster.”
“Carrier Screening” is already available for couples wanting to test for possible genes that could cause disease, but GenePeeks testing goes far beyond this.
Experts have questioned the ethics behind the testing, mainly voicing concerns about the complexity of genetic predisposition and the risk factors involved.
Watch this video from GenePeeks for more detail: