It will soon be possible to create a baby from the DNA of three different individuals — a scientific milestone that demands careful medical and ethical thought before it becomes reality.
Sadly, it often does not work out that way. While science offers many miraculous advances that save or enhance lives around the world, some of these advances can be a Pandora’s box of physical and moral concerns that must be addressed.
The U.K.’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), approved the “cautious use” of techniques to create a three-parent baby — referred to as mitochondrial donation — announcing this past Thursday that it will begin to accept applications from fertility clinics that want a license to perform the procedure.
Mitochondrial donation is achieved by replacing damaged mitochondrial DNA from the mother with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a female donor (mitochondrial DNA always comes from the mother).
Damaged mitochondrial DNA can cause a host of problems — including issues with the brain, liver, heart, skeletal muscles, and kidneys. It can also affect the endocrine and respiratory systems.
“While we’re at it, why don’t we make you taller, stronger, faster, or smarter?”
While no parent wants to face the idea their child might be seriously ill at birth, how far are societies willing to tempt fate to eliminate this prospect? Introducing a third person to the reproductive experience is quite a leap.
And ask any parent whose child has Down’s syndrome if they believe that child brings a special angelic quality to their homes and their lives. Aren’t people born exactly the way God wants them to be born, for His mysterious and specific reasons? Morality and faith deserve due consideration when significant medical advances are considered.
In February 2015, British Parliament approved mitochondrial donation, and a regulatory framework has existed since October of last year. The HFEA had advised clinics to wait, however, until a review was complete and recommendations were offered, according to NPR.
The review wrapped up last month, so the U.K. will now sanction and regulate the techniques “in certain, specific cases,” reported NPR.
Yet many in Britain and elsewhere are alarmed that changes to human DNA would be passed down generationally, which might lead to results for which no one was prepared.
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“A lot of people find that very troubling,” David King, a molecular biologist who runs Human Genetics Alert, a British genetics research watchdog group, told NPR. “It speaks to something very deep and emotional in the human psyche about how human reproduction is supposed to work.”
King also said scientists could make a mistake during the transplant: “We may not know the actual consequences until that person is born, which could include damaging effects on that person’s health. And then those problems would be passed down the generations to that person’s descendants. And obviously that’s something that you don’t want to do.”
The U.S. isn’t far behind this DNA decision.
In February, a panel of scientists released a report recommending that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve testing for the procedure, which has been a topic of serious debate since 2014.
The procedure is “not without its risks, but it’s treating a disease,” medical ethicist Art Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, told CNN’s “New Day” in 2014. While Caplan sees benefits to mitochondrial donation, he also identified the ethical slippery slope in gene editing. “Where we get into the sticky part is, what if you get past transplanting batteries and start to say, ‘While we’re at it, why don’t we make you taller, stronger, faster, or smarter?'”
There is celebration in Britain over the landmark decision to allow a third person into a baby’s DNA. “[The] historic decision means that parents at very high risk of having a child with a life-threatening mitochondrial disease may soon have the chance of a healthy, genetically related child,” HFEA Chairwoman Sally Cheshire said in a statement. “This is life-changing.”
Earlier this year, a doctor from a Manhattan fertility clinic said he helped a Jordanian couple have a baby with DNA from three people. He performed the mitochondrial replacement procedure in Mexico, he said.
One hopes the U.S. will address important ethical questions before following Britain’s lead in approving three-parented babies.