The technique would involve defective DNA in the mother’s egg being replaced with material from a healthy donor, in order to eliminate the risk of her passing a host of hereditary diseases on to her child. A child would effectively have two mothers and a father.
Depending on your perspective, this is either an amazing benefit to society or a scary specter of an Orwellian world ruled by government scientists.
However, according to The Telegraph, the therapy has the broad support of the British public.
The procedure, known as mitochondrial replacement technique, is currently illegal, but that could change.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), a government watchdog, has set out safeguards for the controversial procedure that could affect future generations. It is now up to government ministers to decide whether they should ask the UK Parliament to consent to the therapy.
You can get a sense of how it works by watching this video.
From The Telegraph:
By removing faulty DNA from the mitochondria, which is always inherited from the mother, experts believe the child and future generations could be spared from a collection of devastating conditions affecting the heart, muscles and brain.
The Department of Health, which ordered the consultation last year, must now decide whether to make Britain the first country in the world to permit the treatment, paving the way for its use in clinics.
Mitochondria are rod-shaped power plants in cells that supply energy. They contain their own DNA which is only passed onto offspring by mothers.
Defects in mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) give rise to a range of potentially life-threatening diseases, including a form of muscular dystrophy and conditions leading to the loss of hearing and vision, heart problems and bowel disorders.
How many people does this affect? Around one in every 200 people in Britain is affected by faulty mitochondria; out of these, one in 6,500 people suffer from incurable diseases such as muscular dystrophy or ataxia.
The HFEA has advised certain restrictions: if the government does legalize the therapy, donors and patients should remain anonymous. The group also points out that further tests are needed to ensure the therapy is safe and effective, but believes that it could be ready within a year.
So is this therapy the first step on a slippery slope to designer babies and eugenics, as some critics have argued?
Or is it an exciting new development that will lead to the eradication of a host of serious inherited diseases?
For many people, I suspect the answer will depend on their personal experience. Several years ago, I was assigned to work with a 14-year-old boy suffering from muscular dystrophy. He was a bright, creative child, but confined to a wheelchair and slowly losing all muscle control. He died two years later. His brother, five years younger, knew that he was destined to follow the same path. Their mother lived in a constant state of despair and guilt.
So yes, if this technique brings hope to people who are carriers of conditions like muscular dystrophy, then let’s make it as widely available as possible.
Others will disagree with me, concerned that we are tinkering with nature too much, without knowing exactly what the consequences might be, or they will question whether we really want to create genetically modified humans.
The reality is that we humans will always want to push boundaries, to explore, and to improve on what we have. That’s a good thing, but the moral and ethical questions need to be resolved too.
What do you think?
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