Policy/Biz

England Approves '3-Parent Babies' But That May Be A Misnomer; Offspring Will Retain No Traits of The Third 'Parent'

Mitochondrial DNA
Officials in the UK have approved initial testing for a procedure that will enable the conception of a child using DNA taken from three host "parents." Wiki Commons

Some future British children may have something few — if any — children have had in the past: three parents. On Friday, the UK's chief medical officer Dr. Sally Davies announced that the government has approved the initial testing of the controversial technique requiring three DNA donor "parents" to make one baby. The goal isn't social or political — the UK is not looking to encourage alternative family units — it's medical.

"Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop [genetic] diseases being passed on," Davies said in a statement on Friday, explaining the three-parent DNA procedure. Genetic diseases (in this case mitochondrial disorders) are a group of hereditary abnormalities accredited to a mutation in the mother's mitochondria or the cell's energy source. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mitochondrial diseases can affect one part of the body or multiple including the brain, kidneys, muscles, heart, eyes, and ears.

Around 200 children in the UK are born with a mitochondrial disorder each year including mental retardation, epilepsy, cardiovascular disease and muscular dystrophy, the Associated Press reported.

"Many of these (mitochondrial) conditions are so severe that they are lethal in infancy, creating a lasting impact upon the child's family," said Davies. "An added option for families at risk of having a child with such a condition is welcome."

This technique will require taking only the healthy genetic material from the egg or embryo of a woman with defective mitochondria. A second donor egg or embryo is then stripped of its key DNA but still retains its healthy mitochondria. Finally, the fertilized embryo is placed in the womb of the mother. Professor Doug Turnbull has been tasked with heading up this cutting edge research along with colleagues from Newcastle University.

"I am delighted that the Government is moving forward with publishing draft regulations this year and a final version for debate in Parliament next year," Turnbull said. "This is excellent news for families with mitochondrial disease. This will give women how carry these diseased genes more reproductive choice and the opportunity to have children free of mitochondrial disease."

British scientists who support the approval of this application spurn the notion that a child will be born with DNA matching three parents. They argue the donor egg that is left stripped of its DNA contain no genetic material that will influence the child's external characteristics. Traits such as eye, hair and skin color are still solely dependant on the genes of the mother and father. Davies even compared the procedure to changing out a dead car battery in that the outside appearance of the car stays unaffected, The Telegraph reported.

"Mitochondrial disease can have a devastating impact on people who inherit it," Davies said. "It's only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can." If approved the technique will only go into research development until a final review is brought to the UK Parliament next year for use on up 10 patients each year.

Considering the media headlines sorrounding this announcement — "three-parent babies" — it comes as no surprise that this method for creating a baby has been met with a great deal of skepticism and even rejection from some corners before testing even begins.

"We do not consider that the hunt for 'therapies' that might prevent a small number of disabled children (with mitochondrial disease) being born justifies the destruction of hundreds if not thousands of embryonic human lives," announced the charity Christian Medical Fellowship. The group also called the practice unethical and risky.

Some British health experts speculate this process can be a safer alternative to in vitro fertilization, which has been attributed to health defects in the past. A recent study on children born through in vitro fertilization, a similar process requiring the fertilizing of eggs by a sperm outside of the body, have tracked their health progression four years after birth. In the study, researchers from the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health in Helsinki, Finland analyzed 4,559 born though IVF between 1996 and 1999. A control group of children born without the use of IVF were examined for comparison. The research team found that 35.7 percent of children born through in vitro fertilization were multiple births compared to 2.2 percent of the control group. Children born through multiple births face a bevy of health concerns including psychological maladies, developmental disorders, and in some cases cerebral palsy.

With the growing popularity of IVF and other forms of genetic testing to create so-called "designer babies," safe and effective methods should be investigated in great detail. The next year of this research, along with Parliaments' subsequent decision, could shape the future of pregnancy.

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