(CNN) — A promising way to stop a deadly disease, or an uncomfortable step toward what one leading ethicist called eugenics?
U.S. health officials are weighing whether to approve trials of a pioneering in vitro fertilization technique using DNA from three people in an attempt to prevent illnesses like muscular dystrophy and respiratory problems. The proposed treatment would allow a woman to have a baby without passing on diseases of the mitochondria, the “powerhouses” that drive cells.
The procedure is “not without its risks, but it’s treating a disease,” medical ethicist Art Caplan told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday. Preventing a disease that can be passed down for generations would be ethical “as long as it proves to be safe,” he said.
The USA health officials mentioned are the FDA. The technique is interesting from a medical viewpoint.
Mitochondrial disorders are inherited from the mother. In the procedure under discussion in Washington, genetic material from the nucleus of a mother’s egg or an embryo gets transferred to a donor egg or embryo that’s had its nuclear DNA removed.
The new embryo will contain nuclear DNA from the intended father and mother, as well as healthy mitochondrial DNA from the donor embryo — effectively creating a “three-parent” baby.
Britain is about to approve testing of this technique. For those who are interested, the mitochondrial material they are talking about is found in the “egg white” of the mother’s egg. So they are taking the nucleus out of one mother’s cell and replacing it with the nucleus from the cell of a mother who carries a mitochondrial disease. The egg will be fertilized by the father’s sperm. The baby will look like mom and dad, but be “powered” by donor mom. So, what are mitochondrial diseases?
Mitochondrial disease is a group of disorders caused by dysfunctional mitochondria, the organelles that generate energy for the cell. Mitochondria are found in every cell of the human body except red blood cells and convert the energy of food molecules into the ATP that powers most cell functions.
People who have one of the diseases in this group generally suffer from muscle weakness, coordination problems, may go blind little by little at an early age, etc. This is why they say that this procedure is the “battery” from one mom powering the baby of another mom and dad. Technically, no genes are being replaced, only the mitochondrial RNA.
No, I do not have a fast response. I have just heard about this technique. The fact that it is about to be approved in Britain gives me pause to think before I give a fast reaction. I will have to read what some of the English theologians and bioethicists are saying. Having said that, it is but a matter of time before the next step of gene therapy arrives, and that will be trickier. Just like the same procedures that can be used to rebuild a face after a tragic accident can be used for vanity plastic surgery reasons, the question comes in about how to differentiate between legitimate moral therapies and the danger of vanity therapies. Perhaps the third question is to simply ask how much vanity therapy is permitted.
It is an interesting world that technology is leading us into.