Steps to allow three-person babies approved by UK House of Commons. Critics are worried “designer babies” will result.
The United Kingdom has become the first country to take serious steps toward allowing the creation of three-person babies—a move that continues to fuel an already heated debate among ethicists, politicians, physicians and patients.
“This is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel,” British Public Health Minister Jane Ellison told parliament yesterday. “It’s a bold move but an informed one.”
Recently, the UK House of Commons voted 382-178 in favour of legislation to legally allow the DNA from two women and one man to be used to genetically modify human embryos. If the House of Lords passes the legislation, the UK would become the first country in the world to sanction what critics fear will become “designer babies.”
“What worries me the most is that this crosses a rather ethical line that parties and governments around the world have struggled with for the past 20 years, which is to genetically alter human beings…a few steps further and you have what nobody wants, which is designer babies,” says Dr. David King, director of Human Genetics Alert.
The technology would be used to alter a human egg or embryo before it is transferred into a mother who has defects in her mitochondria, the “battery pack” or energy-producing structures outside of a cell's nucleus. These genetic defects can result in devastating diseases such as muscular dystrophy, heart, kidney and liver failure and severe muscle weakness.
How it works
- Scientists remove the core DNA from the egg of a potential mother and insert the DNA into a donor egg that has had its nucleus DNA removed.
- The embryo that results would have the nucleus DNA of its parents and healthy mitochondrial DNA from the female donor. The procedure that was approved by the Commons can be done two ways — before or after fertilization.
- Scientists in favor of the procedure have said that more than 99 per cent of the DNA in the resulting embryo would originate from its parents, with a small fraction coming from the donor egg.
The Chief Medical Officer of the UK, Dr. Sally Davies, said the law would give women with mitochondrial disease "the opportunity to have children without passing on devastating genetic disorders."
By the numbers
The Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University, which has spearheaded the UK research, calculates that approximately 2,473 women in the UK and 12,423 women in the US, aged between 15 and 44, have these disease-causing mutations and could benefit from this groundbreaking technique.
This equates to an average of 152 births per year in the UK and 778 in the US.
Ethical concerns over “designer babies”
- Do we want to tamper with the genetic origins of human beings in order to create so-called super babies who are free of disease, super athletic or smart?
- Should this be publically funded in countries with universal health care?
- Are we comfortable with the idea of three-parent babies?
- Where do you draw the line between a parent and a donor?
- What implications does this have for parental rights and responsibilities?
- How far will this groundbreaking technology go?
- Is the UK precedent desirable for the rest of the world?
- Already, there are online boutiques where parents can shop for “super” sperm donors. Like dating sites, each profile contains the physical and racial characteristics of potential donors including their height, weight, hair and eye color and racial makeup. Are three-parent babies part of this growing online shopping trend?
“On one hand, we have celebrated the triumph of science that these new techniques represent,” said Liverpool Member of Parliament Luciana Berger during the House of Commons debate.
“On the other hand, we are grappling with serious ethical and moral questions that are raised by the proposed introduction of such techniques. Members [of parliament] have previously shared their anxiety about the uncharted territory in which we now find ourselves.
“The proposed regulations would make Britain the first country to legalize mitochondrial transfer, and scientists have acknowledged that there would always be a ‘leap of faith’ the first time the technique was used.”
Digital health, genomics equation
As many sectors continue to converge towards pushing medicine and health care forward (i.e. genomics, big data, analytics, technology, cloud-based functionalities), it appears we will continue to see sectors that previously seemed disparate begin to overlap. The genomic innovation as demonstrated in Britain will undoubtedly employ breakthrough digital health technologies that will make the extraction, interpretation, analysis and delivery of donor DNA possible.
The whole momentum behind genomic medicine advances the conversation about personalized medicine and to what degree industry, patients and their physicians are willing to go to create care that is individualized based on an individual's genome, as well as prevent disease.
With the increased affordability of doing that, and sharing data in increasingly efficient and affordable way, sectors will indeed continue to overlap with the goal of making health care better for all – provided the ethical debate advances the issue rather grinding it to a halt.