Oh Huxley, what is your beloved country about to do?
In a historic vote that will likely go down in infamy, the UK House of Commons has given the go-ahead to the creation of three-parent babies. The vote was 382 to 128 to legally sanction the creation of genetically-modified children. The House of Lords will debate on the issue next, but according to BBC News, “The first attempt could take place this year, which could lead to the first birth in 2016.”
Why would the UK allow the creation of genetically-modified children? It is an attempt to “prevent” the inheritance of disease caused by mutations in mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Mitochondria are small power-generating organelles in our cells that contain their own DNA. We inherit our mtDNA solely from our mother.
UK fertility clinics are now one step closer to creating and transferring embryos that have the genetic material of three people, two women and one man. The babies will have the mtDNA of a donor woman and the genomic DNA of mother and father.
The techniques used to create children with three genetic parents are often called mitochondrial replacement (MR) or mitochondrial transfer (MT). These are misnomers. They make it sound like the little organelles in a woman’s egg are being replaced. No big deal, right?
But what is actually happening is a whole genome replacement, a swap of the nucleus of one egg into another, much like the cloning technique that created Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. In other words, the House of Commons has given the go ahead to techniques that are very close to the same procedure that has repeatedly produced animal offspring with major birth defects.
Stuart A. Newman, Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College, has a great expose at the Huffington Post about the dangers and deception that surround so-called mitochondrial replacement, which he calls by their proper names “maternal spindle transfer” (MST) and “pronuclear transfer” (PNT). Newman writes:
But this is only mitochondrial replacement in the sense that someone who moves into a new home may experience “refrigerator replacement,” i.e., only by employing a highly idiosyncratic (and misleading) use of the term….
In biological terms, both MST and PNT are very much like cloning by nuclear transfer, the methodology that produced Dolly the sheep. Like cloning, the techniques involve replacement of an egg’s nucleus by a nucleus from another cell. When cloning, the transferred nucleus is from a differentiated cell of a fully developed animal (or potentially, a person), making the resulting organism a genetic “copy” of the nucleus donor. When undertaking MST and PNT, the transferred nucleus is from an egg or a fertilized egg, so that the resulting organism will have a novel genome. Otherwise, however, the hazards of cloning also pertain to MST and PNT, since the manipulations are the same. Clones tend to die prematurely, as happened with Dolly, or exhibit enlarged organs and metabolic abnormalities. Some human embryos constructed by MST unexpectedly had unbalanced chromosomal duplications (aneuploidy). This is the case because unlike the sorts of cellular aberrations repeatedly encountered over the course of evolution – breaks in DNA, the unfolding of protein molecules – the experimental combination of fragments of two broken cells generated by cloning or the two proposed techniques have no inbuilt mechanisms to correct the range of functional and developmental defects inevitably associated with their construction.
What Dr. Newman is saying, in layman’s terms, is that these techniques are very invasive and disruptive and so the children produced with these procedures are at great risk. There very lives will be an experiment in human genetic modification.
Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a vocal American stem cell researcher, agrees. In an open letter to the UK Parliament, he warns:
Even if hypothetically this technology might help avoid some people from having mitochondrial disorders (and that’s a big if), the bottom line is that there is an equal or arguably greater chance that it will tragically produce very ill or deceased babies.
Even more horrifying is that this genetic manipulation would be passed down from generation to generation. It is genetic experimentation on those who cannot consent.
We are at a very steep precipice. If the UK does begin to create genetically-modified children as it seems poised to do, this may change everything. This will open the door to even more radical genetic manipulation, and with new DNA editing techniques emerging, it may be a perfect storm precipitating the advent of designer children. The genetics of future generations will be at the mercy of our whims. Their health and well-being tossed aside in favor of parental desires.
I pray this tsunami can be stopped before we are drowned by our own advancements. No child should ever be a genetic experiment, ever.