Sunnie Yi Ning '18 Contributing Writer
Last Tuesday, the British Parliament passed a law legalizing a technique to create babies from three parents, which can prevent inherited incurable diseases. This bill made Britain the first country to allow such a controversial technique to be used on humans.
The technique, namely, three-parent in vitro fertilization, will allow women with inherited mitochondrial disorders to have healthy babies. Mitochondria are important energy-producing structures of cells outside the nucleus. Only mothers contribute to such structures in an embryo. To complete the treatment, the nucleus of the fertilized egg of the mother will replace the nucleus of the donor’s egg, allowing the new embryo to develop without the mother’s defective mitochondria. Although the nucleus – the structure that carries most of our DNA in a cell – is not modified in this technique, mitochondria also contain less than one percent of all DNA. Thus, strictly speaking, a baby born in such a situation has the DNA from three parents.
The technique would likely be used in about a dozen British women every year who have faulty mitochondria. Defects in mitochondria can cause fatal diseases such as muscular dystrophy, heart, kidney and liver failure and severe muscle weakness. In the United States, it is estimated that more than 12,000 women of childbearing age risk passing down such mitochondrial diseases to their children. On a global scale, one in 6,500 children worldwide suffer from this inherited disease.
However, the technique has again raised the question of whether we have gone too far in genetic modification. Critics of this technique worry that if this one gene modification attempt is allowed, the scientific boundaries will be further crossed. They say that approving this technique will ultimately lead to “designer babies,” which is a both promising and dangerous future morally and scientifically. What is more, genetic modification will not only have an effect on the children born directly with this technique, but also their offspring.
Still, many are optimistic about the new technique. They argue that the generic DNA, the most important part of DNA that determines who you essentially are – your hair color, eye color – will not be modified. Therefore, this technique is really not far away from the approved in vitro fertilization, which by now has given birth to more than five million babies. According to Sarah Elizabeth Richards, a columnist for the New York Times, the decision is inspiring because members of Parliament chose science over a firestorm of often ill-informed debates questioning whether we’ve gone too far in experimenting with genetic engineering. Most importantly, it will no doubt decrease the number of children with inherited mitochondria disorder and allow women who are carriers to give birth to healthy babies.
Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration held a meeting to discuss the techniques but declined to move forward with human trials for safety concerns. The treatments are still at the research stage in laboratories in Britain and the United States, and scientists have warned that it might take decades to ensure that the treatment is safe.
For decades, government regulations have been walking on the fine line between genetic modification and natural fertilization. The British Parliament’s decision is indeed a historic one, as it might be crossing a line. Have they already pushed the boundary too far? Will there be any unintended, disastrous consequences? Is it moral to ban a medical technique that can potentially save lives? And, most importantly, where should we draw the line for genetic modifications? These are all questions the we have yet to answer.