On The Path To Designer Babies? - UK Grants Permission for 3-Parent Babies

News Image By PNW Staff April 10, 2017
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Last year, Britain became the first country in the world to legalize the modification of an egg cell or embryo before it is implanted into the mother's womb. 

Now, the British government has given the green light to a procedure that will allow for babies with three genetic parents. 

Scientists at Newcastle University have been granted the permission to transplant the DNA from a woman's egg cell into the healthy egg of a second woman where it will then be fertilized by the sperm of the first woman's husband.

The goal is to prevent genetic diseases linked to mitochondrial DNA, which is passed unchanged from mother to child. 

The mitochondria sit outside the nucleus of the cell and control energy production in the body's cells. Genetic defects in the mitochondria can result in degenerative muscle disorders such as muscular dystrophy and complete organ failure. 

By transplanting the nucleus of the mother's cell into what is essentially a surrogate egg cell, the dysfunctional mitochondria are replaced by healthy ones and the surrogate cell is then fertilized and implanted to be carried to term with no risk of degenerative muscle failure.

The British scientists, however, are not the first in the world to perform such a procedure. 

In 2015, a team of US doctors was successful in such a transplant but they did so in Mexico and without the legal approval required. 

In the case of the US doctors, the mother had already suffered four miscarriages and had raised two children who died from a neurological disorder, one at 6 years old and the other at only 8 months. 

The difference is that the UK procedure had the legal permission to proceed.

Dr. David Agnus disputed the contention that the procedure results in a baby with three genetic parents by looking instead to the amount of DNA contributed by each, "If you look at the amount of DNA, it's almost like it's 2.001 parents rather than three. But it's DNA from three different people." 

That's because everything we think of as stemming from our genes is contributed by the nuclear DNA. Yet many believe that the level of manipulation, no matter how well-intentioned, has opened a Pandora's box.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have taken genetic manipulation further by tampering with the nuclear DNA in 86 human embryos in an attempt to edit out a rare blood disorder. 

Junjiu Huang and other scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou attempted to alter the gene referred to as HBB, know to result in the fatal blood disorder beta-thalassemia. 

Eric Schadt, director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York explains the Chinese experiment by saying, "What the Chinese did is they took human embryos that harbored a mutation that cause a certain blood disorder and they literally went in and very precisely cut out the bad piece and replaced it with a good piece to eliminate that particular disorder."

What can be done to the HBB gene can be done to virtually any part of the genome and with consequences that are not well-understood. 

The danger of modifying the human genome is that the changes will become a permanent part of the genetic code as they pass into future generations, for better or for worse. 

Effecting such fundamental changes is essentially risky and, even if the technique were better understood, do we want to play God with our genetic code, attempting to improve on God's creation until we have created a genetic elite even further separated from the masses?

Newcastle University said it plans to use its technique of mitochondrial replacement to help 25 women next year and whereas this procedure is not as radical as the Chinese, it has helped to erode opposition to genetically modified babies in the UK that could be "enhanced" in the same manner as those in China. 

Church leaders across the UK have opposed the procedures as standing on very dangerous ethical ground, but the research has continued to move forward.

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