Britain could become the first country in the world to create babies with the DNA of 3 people, now that the UK government has set out new draft regulations.
I first wrote about this just about a year ago, when it seemed clear that the UK might become the first country to legalize the creation of genetically engineered babies with three genetic parents.
Now it seems that the first three-parent babies could be born by 2015 after the UK government set out new draft regulations which will allow donor DNA from a “second mother” to be implanted into a defective egg.
The procedure, which was developed by British scientists, is currently banned, but ministers want to change the law to prevent children suffering debilitating conditions like muscular dystrophy.
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.
Amazing Benefit or Scary Specter?
Depending on your perspective, this is either an amazing benefit to society or a scary specter of an Orwellian world ruled by government scientists.
Years ago, I worked with a family in London whose beautiful 14-year-old son was wasting away with muscular dystrophy, a disease he inherited from his mother. His 8-year-brother watched him, knowing that this was his fate, too. Both children died before reaching their sixteenth birthdays.
Around one in every 200 babies born in the UK has a severe mitochondrial disease. Although rare, the disorders can be passed to future generations through the maternal line. Examples of mitochondrial diseases include conditions that cause muscle wasting, such as the muscular dystrophy that I witnessed, as well as nerve damage, loss of sight and heart failure.
So yes, I believe this technique could bring hope and joy to many families.
The downside of course is the fear that natural selection will have to make way for genetic design. Is this Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? While the use of this technique for mitochondrial disease sounds excellent, perhaps it could be misued for other diseases?
Replacing Defective DNA With Healthy DNA
Under the new rules, IVF (In-Vitro Fertilisation) clinics will be able to replace a baby’s defective mitochondrial DNA with healthy DNA from a female donor’s egg, meaning that babies would have DNA from three people.
In general, health experts and scientists in the UK have backed the government, claiming this heralds a new era in genetic medicine.
Professor Peter Braude, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at King’s College London, said: “I am pleased that the Government has been brave enough to follow through on their promises given during the 2008 revision of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, to bring before Parliament an option to help a small but deserving portion of society blighted with the spectre of transmitting mitochondrial disease to their children.”
He goes on to caution: “It is true that genetic alteration of disease risk is an important step for society and should not be taken lightly. However the proposed changes to the regulations ensure it will be limited to informed couples, who understand from sad personal experience the significant effects of their disease, and are best placed to balance the risks of the technology with the possibility of having children without mitochondrial disease.”
Once the rules are brought in, it will be up to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), to decide whether a treatment can go ahead on a case-by-case basis.
As Liz Curtis, from the Lily Foundation, which funds research into mitochondrial diseases, explained:
“The publication today of the draft regulations is welcomed by The Lily Foundation. We meet too many families on a daily basis whose worlds have been turned upside down by the devastating effects of mitochondrial diseases.
“These IVF techniques will eradicate mitochondrial disease for some families, offering the opportunity to have a healthy child. We hope the approval will not take too long, so these families can benefit from this as soon as possible and hopefully see a little light at the end of a dark tunnel.”
Any development that saves a whole lot of human suffering is worth applauding. Let’s hope this one becomes law.
What do you think?
Photo Credit: thinkstock