Proposed Treatment To Fix Genetic Diseases Raises Ethics Issues

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The federal government is considering whether to allow scientists to take a controversial step: make changes in some of the genetic material in a woman's egg that would be passed down through generations.

Mark Sauer of the Columbia University Medical Center, a member of one of two teams of U.S. scientists pursuing the research, calls the effort to prevent infants from getting devastating genetic diseases "noble." Sauer says the groups are hoping "to cure disease and to help women delivery healthy normal children."

But the research also raises a variety of concerns, including worries it could open the door to creating "designer babies." The Food and Drug Administration has scheduled an Oct. 22 hearing to consider the issues.

Specifically, the research would create an egg with healthy mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Unlike the DNA that most people are familiar with — the 23 pairs of human chromosomes that program most of our body processes — mtDNA is the bit of genetic material inside mitochondria, living structures inside a cell that provide its energy.

Written By: Rob Stein
continue to source article at npr.org

12 COMMENTS

  1. Marcy Darnovsky, the interviewee from the Center for Genetics and Society, made comments that didn’t really seem to fit the procedure discussed in the article. I clicked on her name, which links to a short bio. Her Ph.D. is from the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. So, not a scientific one, let alone anything to do with genetics.

    Link to HofC curriculum

    The point of this procedure is not genetic engineering, it’s to switch out the nucleus into a cell with healthy mitochondria without altering the DNA of the nucleus or mitochondria at all. The question to be asked, that was never raised in the article, is does transferring the nucleus carry a risk of disrupting the DNA? A risk that’s significant compared to the rate of glitches in normal meiosis? Surely this is something that’s already known from previous work in egg cells?

    Then there’s Ronald Green wondering if the child will suffer an identity crisis. I recall a similar uproar when Louise Brown was born, and now in vitro is quite normal. It seems like Green is just looking for something to justify his opposition.

    Of course, years down the line, if this sort of thing becomes more common, it will throw off studies that trace lineages through mitochondrial DNA…

  2. This treatment does not raise ethics issues; it just annoys people who pretend their objections are rooted in ethics. They’re not. It can’t be unethical to repair mitochondrial DNA. There’s no argument against it from consequence; it has nothing to do with “human nature”; it’s just kneejerk BS. Manufactured controversies like these damage the reputation of “medical ethics”, to the point where that phrase keeps being used to refer to situations where someone is opposed to doing a medical good for some crappy reason or another. Surely there’s more to it than that.

  3. My God, genes just can’t catch a break, can they?

    Possibly the least objectionable use for gene therapy – curing genetic diseases – and it’s still treated like the modern nuke, as though genes were corrupting influences that would pollute society. It’s so frustrating to see the double standard against genes in this day and age. Does anyone raise an equivalent stink about psychoanalysis, or counselling, or hypnotherapy, or alternative medicine, or prescribed drugs for medical use only, or any kind of body/mind-changing practice supposedly becoming a slippery slope for social engineering?

  4. I agree with the first two comments, although they did mention concerns about somehow damaging the DNA. Seeing as how this technique isn’t changing the phenotypical genes that most people would be concerned about (metabolism rather than appearance), and that it isn’t actually changing any mtDNA, just using another variant in the population, the concerns about designer babies are unfounded.

    On the other hand, I’m sure that when we are capable of producing designer babies, not many people will object to them. Just like no one is worried about in vitro fertilization these days.

    • In reply to #4 by glenister_m:

      I agree with the first two comments, although they did mention concerns about somehow damaging the DNA.

      Well, I raised the question, yes. Theoretically, the technique would not change either the nuclear DNA nor the mtDNA, and if it works that way, then I think it’s a good thing. But I couldn’t help thinking of somatic cell nuclear transfer – the process that produced Dolly the cloned sheep, which has a very high failure rate.

      The two procedures are similar in that the nucleus is removed from an egg cell and another nucleus inserted. They differ in that, in SCNT a diploid nucleus is inserted and then the ovum induced to start dividing. In the proposed treatment, a haploid egg nucleus is inserted and then the resulting egg cell exposed to sperm to be fertilized and begin dividing. If part of the difficulty with SCNT is damage to any of the DNA during transfer, then presumably this new procedure will be vulnerable to this same kind of problem. I searched a bit but couldn’t find any specific enough information.

      I am not agreeing with the opposition; I’m just bringing up a possible hurdle to be overcome. If the risk of mutation caused by the process can be shown to be at or near normal, or natural, risks, then I don’t see an objection.

  5. What is the objection to a designer baby?

    1. picking the muscle cell type to determine the optimal sport
    2. deciding height
    3. avoiding propensity to early alzheimers
    4. avoiding heart disease

    Surely we do not want more heart disease. It is worry over starting a sexual-selection spiral for ever taller people in a silly arms race? It is just fear of the unknown?

  6. The science is called Eugenics, its good for our species. Just because someone used it for purposes we currently consider immoral does not taint the science. Our ideas of what is moral is an ever changing phenomenon. Sadly we shall soon be victims of the success of science, overpopulation is destroying biodiversity and will lead to the extinction of the mega-species on our planet.

    • “If mistakes are made, they won’t just be mistakes in the child that is born. But if that child [is a girl and] has children down the line, those children will inherit the mitochondria from that child, and we’ll have introduced new genetic diseases into the human population,” Green says.

      I’m also guessing that another ethical issue is in the possibility that babies maybe used as experiment subjects for this
      kind of genetic intervention. That said these doctors and scientists no doubt have noble intentions.
      Giving someone a disease free life would be fantastic!

      In reply to #6 by sciling:

      ………….Sadly we shall soon be victims of the success of science, overpopulation is destroying biodiversity and will lead to the extinction of the mega-species on our planet.

      That is surely nonsense! Human overpopulation is by no means destroying biodiverstiy.
      The reckless mass breeding and killing of animals by the billions each year, causes far more damage to the environment.
      In otherwords the consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, fish and other animal products are likely to be the biggest contribution to environmental damage. And then we also have the debt based fiat currency controlled by the federal reserve bank also causing tremendous problems to just about all nations. And lastly we have religion adding fuel to destruction.

      So basically there are some major factors in our society that are far more detrimental than the large population number.

      • In reply to #7 by Terra Watt:

        Human overpopulation is by no means destroying biodiverstiy.

        This is unevidenced nonsense! There is huge loss of biodiversity because of the human population explosion and habitat loss. Shortening human food-chains by eating more efficiently produced food with less conversion losses would help put off the problem a few years, but this would only be a stop-gap measure as the population continued to expand towards catastrophic collapse.

        The reckless mass breeding and killing of animals by the billions each year, causes far more damage to the environment. In otherwords the consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, fish and other animal products are likely to be the biggest contribution to environmental damage.

        These contribute, but there are many other factors, such as industrial pollution, expanding wasteful consumerism, deforestation, and extending agriculture in general. Global warming and ocean acidification from CO2 production is also having dire effects, and will have more in the future, as climate zones move towards the poles, ice-caps melt, and sea-levels rise.

  7. I would have picked mDNA from the father (identical to his mother’s mDNA) so it would still be strictly from the two parents. However, given that we are living in endosymbiosis with other living organisms (our mitochondria), I don’t see any reason why we would not want to pick and choose the most efficient of those from any compatible species. Some will recoil from such a suggestion, but at some point in time our descendants will want to know why we passed on to them broken things like our defective vitamin C gene, when we could just as well fixed them. How far that is going to go, and where the lines will be drawn, I don’t know. I do know that humans who have no problem with modifying their own bodies, will also modify their own genes, and those of their descendants.

  8. “……worries it could open the door to creating “designer babies.””

    According to the religious establishments, isn’t EVERY baby ‘designed’? So, is god unethical for creating and designing babies with severe genetic defects? Discuss.

  9. How is there an ethical issue with ensuring healthy babies are born?
    Everybody has a different genetic code, will it make them something other than human? Of course it won’t. There is no ethical issue here, just some people trying to get attention.

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