In a historic move, the House of Lords recently voted in favour of a bill allowing scientists to create three-person babies. The modified form of in vitro fertilisation will have DNA from a mother, father and female donor. The UK is the first country to pass such a bill and introduce laws to allow the creation of three person babies.
The new technique is intended to stop mitochondrial diseases being genetically transferring from mothers to their babies. It’s hard to estimate how many people suffer from mitochondrial-related diseases as it’s often misdiagnosed with diseases – such as cerebral palsy and seizures – but it’s thought to be at the very least one in 5000.
Mitochondrial disease can be diagnosed at any age and the diseases has different effects on each individual. Some of the symptoms include brain damage, muscle wasting, heart failure and blindness. Mitochondria are found in our cells and is the location for the conversion of food energy to ATP. (ATP is the energy needed for a cell to function properly.) Faulty mitochondria lead to problems such as muscle weakness and getting tired quickly. Scientists can now use a modified version of IVF to combine the DNA from parents with the healthy mitochondria of a female donor.
However, whilst the UK science community welcome the vote, religious groups have opposed the technique. Both the Catholic and Anglican Churches have spoken out against the technique, as the process involves tampering with human embryos, a process many believe should only be in the hands of God. Religious and ethical groups strongly oppose the pro-nuclear transfer technique used that involves fertilising the mother’s egg first and then transferring the nuclear DNA to the fertilised donor egg containing healthy mitochondria. This leaves the original, now empty embryo to be destroyed, causing some controversy.
Other concerns include the implementation of “designer babies” where such things as intelligence, hair and eye colour, and height could be determined. However, scientist shave spoken out, stating that the technique uses 0.1% of the donor parents’ DNA which is not enough to alter aesthetics.
However, is now the time to take the “designer baby” debate more seriously? Where will the line be drawn on what can be picked to be removed or added to an embryos DNA? Regulation is key with a subject like this, although genetic modification is responsible for the treatment/prevention/cure to so many diseases it’s vital to remember this science has the potential to be abused by someone, somewhere. The first babies to be born from the three-person technique will be expected around 2016.