A U.K. fertility watchdog has approved a controversial new procedure to prevent mitochondrial disease. According to Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, one in 200 children are born annually with the disease, a genetic cell mutation that can cause diabetes, deafness, heart disease and other neurological diseases and can eventually lead to catastrophic organ failure. In the in vitro procedure, faulty genes from the mother are replaced by those from a donor, creating, in effect, three parents per embryo.
The number of genes replaced is tiny – 37 out of some 23,000 – and insignificant to our overall looks, such as hair and eye color. In its recommendation to the British government, the HFEA called the arguments for proceeding with the technique “clear and compelling.”
Nevertheless, the idea has raised questions among ethicists about a slippery slope towards the creation of so-called “designer babies.” If we can replace genes to prevent inherited diseases, can we also sort through the gene pool for the traits we like, discarding those we don’t, mixing a DNA cocktail for the perfect child? And since each child would carry and pass on donated genetic code, what are the potential long-term implications?
Those issues may be a long way off, as more experiments are needed to perfect the technique on humans. But similar studies have been done here in the United States and it’s only a matter of time before the question comes up on our shores.
If this procedure could prevent a debilitating genetic disease, would you approve its use? What concerns do you have about the ethics of mixing genes in vitro?
Shoukhrat Mitalipov, Ph.D., Associate Scientist in the Division of Reproductive & Developmental Sciences of ONPRC, Oregon Stem Cell Center and Departments of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Molecular & Medical Genetics
Arthur Caplan, Professor of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center