Human agency is at the heart of the juxtaposition of artificial versus natural selection. Medical and genetic science informs that agency influences our decision making. This is relatively new to our species, at least in the sophistication of the knowledge and testing available. Three parent babies are just one expression of this new incorporation of knowledge to our breeding decisions.
The term “three parent baby” is easy to misconstrue. It is not a polygamous relationship, not socially or sexually at least. It is not something you will find on a new TLC network show (at least not yet). It is not even surrogacy, in which uses another woman is used as a life vessel for another’s fertilized eggs. The closest comparison would be using a donor’s eggs or embryo, but with the original mother’s nucleus.
Mitochondria Replacement Therapy (MRT) aims at preventing the passing on of mitochondrial disorders from mother to child. Mitochondria primarily functions as a cell’s energy producer. Living human cells require a chemical energy known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Mitochondrial also plays a significant role in intercellular communication, called signalling, as well as the overall life cycle of a cell. Mitochondrial disorders affect proper cell function including energy production. These disorders passed on to children have very little treatment options (let alone any known cure) and are often fatal, with most cases not making it past adolescence. There is a wide range of mitochondrial disorders that causes variance in when and if symptoms appear, and how hard they hit.
Mitocanada.org states that approximately one in 5,000 Canadians has a mitochondrial disorder that vary in severity and aggressiveness, and is related to health problems such as Alzheimer’s, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and cardiomyopathy (heart failure from thickening heart walls). Some parents are carriers of the mutation but do not have a related disease. Passing on genes and/or disease depends on the mother for mutated mitochondria DNA, and both parents for mutated nuclear DNA within the mitochondrion.
MRT was approved for clinical trials in the United Kingdom by parliament in February 2015, and preliminary research has been conducted since 2008. Two procedures are being tested; one which inserts the parents’ embryo’s nucleus in a donor embryo, and the other inserts the mothers’ eggs’ nucleus into a donors’ egg before fertilization. The donors’ genes do get passed to the child, however, only genes related to the child’s mitochondrial function. According to UK think tank Wellcome Trust (E.d. it does have 2 L’s in Wellcome), the 37 genes taken from the donor make up approximately 0.1 per cent of the childs’ genetic makeup. The 99.9 per cent of genes come from the couple having the child.
The scientific merits are that the passing on of a mitochondrial disease can be circumvented without eliminating the parents from the gene pool. It also increases the certainty that the child will not develop a related disease. Years of suffering with a disease and a short life expectancy are eliminated.
The criticisms of MRT are that it’s a slippery slope toward ‘designer babies’. The most militant criticism is that it’s a justification of applying eugenics. It is also not certain that a carrier passing on the gene will necessarily result in the child developing a disease. So while it is certain the gene is passed on, the severity is dependent on what is passed on.
The ‘playing God’ card is unfounded, as any medical treatment falls under this category, reminding one of the bird flu epidemic during George W. Bush’s presidency, which paralleled his decision to ban federal funding on stem cells used from human embryos. Very ironically, when the bird flu epidemic hit, no one criticized initiatives to learn about the disease’s transmission ability to humans in order to prevent loss of life. No one in the administration said that we were interfering with something that God designed to kill us. From a theological perspective, I’d point to Galileo Galilei’s quote “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use”.
The ‘designer babies’ argument holds water if we are talking about curtailing only low likelihood diseases, playing flip the switch with our chromosomes, or using genetics for aesthetic purposes. Treatments such as MRT are designed to prevent very significant, currently incurable problems in children, and if proven successful, I don’t have an issue with hedging one’s bets against something so devastating. It is also applied very specifically for would-be parents who are carriers, rather than the general public. We generally make conscious choices about who we mate with, and having medical data at our disposal simply helps inform that decision.
The eugenics argument misunderstands what MRT is, and is based on a skewed, rudimentary, early 20th century understanding of genetics. The old understanding was applied for racial and social reasons under the guise of medical treatment (like ‘racial purity’ as a basis for ethnic cleansing or sterilization, or attributing behaviours like alcoholism, criminality or even illiteracy to be solely genetic). In the case of MRT, application is done to improve life outcomes against legitimate medical threats, not to prevent people from breeding, nor does it force medical treatment on anyone.
Mitocanada “has been and is watching with interest the developments out of the UK regarding the mtDNA transfer technique. Currently the organization does not have a position on the procedure. But because part of our mandate is to inform and support persons in Canada affected by the disease we are looking at engaging our community and experts on this issue as has happened elsewhere.”