“It is important that legislation keeps pace with scientific progress.” Robert Winston
A little breakthrough for medical research happened last week, not in the lab, but in the House of Commons. By a huge majority the commons voted to allow a new IVF technique called mitochondrial donation, which can be used to stop babies from inheriting mitochondrial DNA diseases. Most mitochondrial DNA diseases are passed from mother to child and can cause debilitating symptoms such as muscle weakness, diabetes, heart problems, movement problems, epilepsy or even death. With a 1 in 4,000 prevalence, apparently Charles Darwin even had a form of the disease, which caused continuous vomiting and terrible headaches.
Even though scientists, politicians and most of the public seem to be in a rare state of agreement over this topic, it has of course had its opponents. Before we take a look at the arguments of those who worry about its safety, let’s first take a tentative dip into fertilisation to find out how this new technique works.
The mitochondria are the power house of cells in the body and provide energy to carry out different cellular function. Each mitochondria actually has its own DNA, separate from the DNA that makes you who you are, which it uses for controlling its own function and energy production. When this mitochondrial DNA becomes faulty, usually a trait passed down from the mother, the mitochondria could malfunction, causing all sort of trouble.
This new technique takes the nuclear DNA, the DNA that really makes you you, from a patient’s egg and places it into an egg from a healthy donor which has already had its own nuclear DNA removed. The healthy egg is then inserted back into the mother to develop. As the donor egg contains healthy mitochondrial DNA, you’ve now got yourself a healthy little baby growing.
The main concerns that have been expressed are worries over safety, and the ever slippery slippery slope towards designer babies. Personally, this is something I have never understood. In today’s health and safety dominated, slightly science-sceptical, government a discovery that has gained so much media interest would never have been allowed to be used by the public without endless supporting evidence and safeguards. As to those who see the children as three-parent babies, technically only 0.1% of the DNA is not from the parents so perhaps they should be called 2.0001 parent babies. I agree it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, though.
It’s been unusual to see such major media coverage for a subject that could be viewed as too complicated for the public to get behind. Hopefully this is a welcome look into a future where new scientific breakthroughs are more broadly accepted.