Pending approval from the appropriate regulatory authorities, biotech scientists are gearing up to start manufacturing genetically modified (GM) human babies within the next two years, according to BBC News. A novel form of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that involves combining the eggs of two different women with the sperm of one man could soon be made publicly available as a way to prevent deadly mitochondrial diseases.
The body’s energy powerhouses, mitochondria are absolutely essential for life. When they don’t work properly, a person is unable to manufacture enough energy to function properly, leading to muscle weakness and loss, heart failure, blindness, and potentially even death. But reconstructing human embryos using science could provide a viable solution.
A scientific panel assembled by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in the U.K. recently took a closer look at the technology to assess its safety. While it was unable to determine without a shadow of a doubt that the process is safe, the panel claims to have observed positive developments when the unhealthy mitochondria of the actual parents was replaced that of the donor parents.
“The direction of travel still suggests that it is all safe, but we don’t know what’s around the corner so we’re being a little cautious,” stated Professor Robin Lovell-Badge from the Medical Research Council (MRC), which was in charge of the research.
According to reports, a so-called “three person” baby is constructed by fertilizing two different sets of eggs with the same sperm. Pronuclei from the baby’s actual parents, which contains the appropriate genetic information, is extracted from both embryos, and only the actual parents’ is kept. This pronuclei is added back into the donor embryo, and the resulting embryo is implanted back into the mother’s womb.
Will mutated mitochondria from GMO babies be passed from generation to generation?
In theory, the concept sounds like a viable way to ensure that a child has the best possible chance at living a healthy life. But scientists are unsure whether or not it can be accomplished this easily, as mutated mitochondria could end up being transferred in the process.
“Are these techniques safe in humans? We won’t know that until it’s actually done in humans,” stated Prof. Andy Greenfield, chair of the scientific review panel, to reporters, noting that safety is “not a straightforward issue.”
“Until a healthy baby is born we cannot say 100 percent that these techniques are safe,” he added. “If you think back to when IVF was a new technology, all of these questions were asked before IVF.”
Since mitochondria come with their own unique DNA sets, babies born from three people instead of two will have an additional set of DNA. The resulting gene expressions from this DNA cocktail could lead to unforeseen health problems in children that receive it, something that will remain unknown until the procedure is actually initiated.
“This research is, by definition, eugenics and will inevitably be used for convenience — that is its raison d’etre,” wrote one BBC News commenter about the issue. “The idea that you can, or should, cure every disability implies rejection of the existence of disability. What’s next: ‘cure’ the elderly of their burdens with painless euthanasia?”
Surprisingly, scientists in the U.S. seem to lean more in this direction, as a scientific panel here in the states came to a much different conclusion about the technology. According to The Verge, a domestic panel back in February found that the safety of IVF from three parents is both inconclusive and lacking, which will hopefully bar its regulatory approval.