Sexual Studies: Three Parents and One Baby?

Every Saturday, The CSPH highlights news or recent research in the field of human sexuality. This week we’re looking at a recently proposed technique in the United Kingdom that uses three people to create one baby.  The technique, resulting in a baby containing genetic information from three people—two parents and a donor woman—could be used to prevent debilitating and fatal mitochondrial diseases, which are passed down only from mother to child.

About 1 in 200 children are born with faulty mitochondria—the tiny power stations that provide energy to every cell in the body.  Most children show little or no symptoms, but in the severest cases the cells of the body are starved of energy, often leading to muscle weakness, blindness, and heart failure, and in some cases potentially fatal outcomes.  Mitochondria are passed on from the mother’s egg to the child; the father does not pass on mitochondria through his sperm. The idea behind this new technique is to add a healthy woman’s mitochondria into the mix.  Because mitochondria contain their own genes in their own set of DNA, any babies produced would contain genetic material from three people. The vast majority would come from the biological mother and father, but would also include mitochondrial DNA from the donor woman.

Two main techniques have been shown to work in the laboratory: using either a donor embryo or a donor egg (See Picture “Method one: Embryo repair”).  Both processes work as follows: 1) Two embryos are fertilized with sperm creating an embryo from the intended parents and another from the donor, 2) the pronuclei, which contain genetic information, are removed from both embryos but only the parents’ is kept, and 3) a healthy embryo is created by adding the parents’ pronuclei to the donor embryo, which is finally implanted into the womb.

This process would create a form of genetic modification, a highly controversial practice, passed on to the child’s potential future offspring and further generations.  In order to address this and other ethical issues involved in this kind of technique, Professor Lisa Jardine, Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and her colleagues are conducting a consultation reviewing the possible effects and outcomes. Jardine says it is a question of “balancing the desire to help families have healthy children with the possible impact on the children themselves and wider society.”  The consultation is scheduled to run until December 7, 2012 and the conclusions will be presented to ministers next spring. Research into this field is legal in the UK, but is not currently approved for use in patients.

Other important ethical issues, such as how children born through these techniques feel, when they should be told, the effects on the parents, and the status of the donor woman, are also being considered.  A group called Human Genetics Alert has said that this procedure is “unnecessary, dangerous and sets a precedent for genetically modified designer babies.”  Clearly more work needs to be done in order to understand the long-term effects this technique would have on the child, not only in terms of medical health, but also in terms of the child’s identity and family of origin.  Considerations also need to be made regarding the involvement of the donor, regulations for who can become a donor, and how they would or would not be compensated. Legal rights regarding custody may also come into play in certain situations.  As with any new procedure involving the modification of our society’s “traditional” method for the “creation of life,” this technique is extremely controversial and if approved for use at all, will have to undergo several years or more of testing and close scrutiny.

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