Three parents, one baby. It’s not something that logically goes together. And yet – could this be one of the most important advances in reproductive medicine, ever?
In what is a huge step for the world of assisted conception, the House of Commons in the UK has just voted to allow the genetic material of three people to be combined in order to bypass mitochondrial abnormalities and create a healthy, viable embryo. There were 382 in favour and just 128 votes against the process, which shows the huge amount of support in place for this sort of treatment. A further vote in favour of the ruling is required from the House of Lords, but ultimately the first such pregnancy in the UK could go ahead this year – and the first such baby born next year.
The mitochondria is a tiny part inside almost every cell in our body. The defective mitochondria is always inherited from the mother and can lead to abnormalities. These are things like wasting diseases, brain damage, heart failure and blindness; all very serious afflictions. This new treatment uses a modified version of IVF to take healthy mitochondria from a donor female and replace the defective genetic material from the mother with the healthy material from the donor. In terms of the amount of genetic material transferred, it makes up 0.1% of the DNA of the baby; a tiny, tiny proportion – but yet such a dramatic effect. The actual process involves taking the nucleus of one egg and inserting it into the cytoplasm of an egg from which the nucleus has been removed, but it still contains the mitochondrial DNA. Fertilisation of this hybrid egg with sperm thus creates the genetically-altered embryo. Though it is only 0.1%, when examined, the DNA of the children will show three genetically identifiable parents, and it is this which is the contentious issue.
Inevitably, a storm of criticism has followed the vote, raising ethical questions and making allegations of almost Orwellian proportions of ‘designer babies’ being just around the corner. The reality however, is slightly different. The ‘new’ technique which has just been voted for by the House of Commons has actually been around for twenty years and has already been used in the USA. These children are now entering their teens and show no ill effects from the procedure their mothers underwent. What this treatment allows is the avoidance of horrible, life-limiting illnesses and diseases and the distress and pain of both parents and children. One UK lady lost seven children to the same disease. If this treatment had been offered to her, she would not have had to suffer those losses.
The people arguing against the ‘three parents’ ruling cite issues such as genetic modification. It seems that the bulk of the negative feeling is going towards the possibility that this decision means that one day parents will be able to pre-select the characteristics that they want in their children. But the facts are that this is not a slippery slope with an inevitable conclusion. The process used is a modified version of the IVF procedure. This has been around for decades and is used widely in clinics, such as Cyprus IVF centre, day in, day out. Team Miracle are highly skilled at providing a treatment which allows people to become parents whereas otherwise they wouldn’t be able to. This is unquestioningly manipulating genetic information, and yet the vast majority of people find it ethically acceptable. If nature were allowed to take its course then these people would remain childless, by going through IVF treatment they can bypass nature’s decision. How is it any different to eliminating defective genetic material? The crux of the matter seems to be that there are three contributors to the embryo, rather than two. But this is simply a means to an end. In terms of progressive medicine, it is fabulous. It was described by one MP as “a light at the end of a tunnel”. Scientifically speaking, this treatment has been around for years and it has not been used. Supporters state that because this treatment is possible, it’s almost criminal not to use it. There are no negative aspects to using donor genetic material, the only concerns are those which are ethical.
– The involvement of three people in one embryo. That it goes against nature.
– That it represents a permanent genetic alteration which the child will pass on to future generations.
– That disease is a naturally occurring phenomenon which has some use in the natural world.
It’s hard to argue against this new vote without also objecting to IVF on the same grounds. And yet the popularity of this treatment has continued to soar, year after year. Cyprus IVF Centre is one of those which is proud to offer not just IVF, but additional procedures such as gender selection and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. What is the latter if not just a tiny step away from allowing mitochondrial exchange? It’s a tiny alteration which has a hugely positive effect. Genetic modification is indeed a thorny issue, but this just steers clear of it.
New York University researcher, James Grifo, speaks out about the ban his country has imposed on the three parent technique: “…society would never have made the advances in treating infertility that we have if these bans had been imposed ten years ago.”
For some, the objections will remain there. But for others, an appreciation of the benefits to existing reproductive medicine and the difference it can make in the lives of those who need the treatment, outweigh all other concerns. When it comes to creating human life, this is a wholly valuable and vitally important treatment to be able to use.