Your baby can now have 3 people's DNA
Posted December 18, 2016
What if you could guarantee your baby wouldn’t be born with a disease that would eventually kill him or her? Most parents would go to great lengths to have that promise - but at what cost?
Recently, the UK passed a law that allows parents to alter a baby’s DNA for this very purpose. If the baby is at risk of inheriting a mitochondrial disease from the mother, a third DNA strand from a donor can be added to the baby’s DNA.
"Parents at very high risk of having a child with a life-threatening mitochondrial disease may soon have the chance of a healthy, genetically related child,” Sally Chesire, the chair of Britain's fertility regulator, said in a statement for the Associated Press.
This all started years ago when researchers studied how to use modified In Vitro Fertilization to stop mothers from passing on mitochondrial diseases to their babies.
Last February the House of Commons legalized this new mitochondrial implantation technique and that same month a new version of IVF was also approved. But one last step remained - the licensing agreement from the fertility regulator. Finally, anxious families who have been hoping for the possibility of eliminating these fatal diseases received the good news this week: the fertility regulator announced the new treatment will be available for families.
Although those interested must go through a rigorous application process that will be approved on a case by case basis, they hope 150 families will benefit from this new procedure each year going forward.
Pros and cons
As you can imagine, this method has produced some heated discussion about the ethics of 'genetic modification.'
Some claim the pros outweigh the cons; they argue that the mitochondrial substitution is basically the same as a blood transfusion. There is a little bit of a third party in the baby’s system, but not to the extent of altering the baby’s personality, looks or life in any way (except to make him healthy of course). Supporters claim this process can change the quality of a human’s life and humans in general for generations, without actually altering much else.
Those who don't support this new method claim it is one more step on the way to full blown genetic modification of embryos. Will people will get carried away with other modifications to their baby? While the process has met rigorous safety requirements, people still fear the unknown and the what ifs. They also argue tthere are other options for mothers with this concern, egg donation for example.
Why change the mitochondria?
Mitochondria are responsible for converting your food into energy and provide 90% of your body's total energy. So, when mitochondria don’t function properly, your body stops working. This causes major organs and organ systems failure, muscular dystrophy and severe muscle weakness.
This new process being pioneered in the UK replaces the mother’s faulty mitochondria with healthy mitochondria from a third party. Because mitochondrial diseases are only passed down from the mother, this stops the passing down of faulty mitochondria forever.
If a couple is approved for this procedure, there are two options. The mitochondrial transfer can be done before fertilization, in the egg stage, or after fertilization, in the embryo stage, but either way the process is pretty much the same.
First: The mother’s nucleus DNA is removed from her egg and transplanted into a third party’s egg where the nucleus DNA has already been removed. This means an egg with most of the mother’s main nuclear DNA remains, but the mitochondrial DNA is pulled from the third party donor.
If done after fertilization, the mom and dad's nucleus DNA is put into the donor egg with the healthy mitochondria. As a result, the baby is still almost completely the genetic result of the mom and dad, but with .1% of a third DNA - the healthy mitochondria DNA.
Wherever you stand, the arguments on both sides of the spectrum hold some truth; but what can’t be argued is the fact that this will change the world.
Kelsey is a student at Brigham Young University studying to broaden her horizons through the written word. She loves the outdoors, family, car washes and punny witticisms.