Yesterday the UK’s House of Commons voted to allow the creation of three-parent embryos—a technique that would introduce the DNA of a third party in an effort to prevent mitochondrial diseases. While much of the media is referring to the process as “mitochondrial transfer,” a more accurate labeling would be human genetic engineering. And venturing down this path could be quite grim.
Writing in the Huffington Post, Stuart Newman, Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College is appalled by the decision:
The techniques are being promoted as a way of circumventing mitochondrial mutations, which can lead to severe disease. It is understandable that an affected woman who intends to become pregnant would seek to avoid passing down this genetic predisposition to her offspring. Methods such as MST and PNT represent radical interventions in the reproductive process that, if accurately portrayed, would stir fears in prospective parents and rightly attract the attention of legislators and regulators. The laboratory scientists and doctors for whom these women are clients (not patients – their own conditions are not being treated), thus have an interest in minimizing the perceived scale of what they are proposing to do (emphasis added).
Today at WIRED, celebrity bioethicist Art Caplan aims to calm fears over the procedure:
Some say three parent babies are weird. It is true that a mitochondrion is taken from a donor but why this makes the donor in any way a parent is beyond me. If I give the battery from my car to a friend whose battery has died does that make me an owner of her car? And even if logic were stretched to say yes, it is not as if this is the first time we have seen babies with three parents. Sperm, egg, and embryo donation and surrogacy—not to mention adoption—have been around a long time without fracturing the nature of the family. This objection gets no traction.
In addition to downplaying the safety concerns to the embryos themselves, Caplan is dismissive of the fact that no long term studies have ever been done on the effects of egg donors and their long term health profiles, nor does he consider the effects of the children conceived through third party reproduction, as so much of our work has aimed to evidence over the past few years.
Once again scientists and policymakers alike have let their eagerness for what we can do, outpace the considerations on what we should do. Let the fallout begin.
Ed. Update: Dr. Trevor Stammers, Program Director in Bioethics and Medical Law at St. Mary’s University: “We do not yet know the interaction between the mitochondria and nuclear DNA. To say that it is the same as changing a battery is facile. It’s an extremely complex thing.”
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