London, England -- Scientists have developed a $150 test that enables doctors to screen unborn children for low intelligence. Their testing kit can identify a range of genetic defects known to lead to learning difficulties.
Developed by a British company, it is the first gene test for low IQ and has already been adapted for use by doctors in the United States and Spain on families they suspect have an inherited risk of a defect. Using test-tube baby techniques, the American and Spanish doctors have selected only perfect embryos to be returned to the womb.
Some experts are concerned that such testing echoes Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," in which epsilon babies were bred in hatcheries for menial tasks while alphas lived a life of luxury.
"There is an urgent need for regulation of what constitutes legitimate use of this type of genetic diagnosis," said Richard Nicholson, the editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics.
"Low IQ is not life-threatening. This is a significant step towards eugenics."
The kit being marketed by Cytocell, of Banbury, was developed from research at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, Oxford.
Scientists have identified the specific arrangements of genetic material on the telomeres, the ends of DNA strands in each chromosome, which cause children to suffer anything from moderate learning problems to mental handicap.
About 21,000 children are born with a learning difficulty in Britain each year. Scientists say the test could identify up to 2,000 of them.
Research is now turning to the quest for other genetic characteristics which may cause sub-normal intelligence, with the ultimate goal of offering screening to women carrying naturally conceived babies.
Cytocell has already produced customised probes for couples at high risk of having mentally retarded children at the St Barnabas Medical Centre in New Jersey and at a genetics centre in Barcelona.
The American government is ploughing federal funds into developing such tests.