Britain mulls ethics of 'three-parent babies'
Published Tuesday, September 18, 2012 1:24PM EDT
Britain is weighing the ethics of contentious procedures that allow three parents to create a baby.
An independent regulator that oversees embryo research launched a public consultation Monday to explore the consequences of the procedures, which could prevent women from passing on incurable mitochondrial diseases.
The treatments, which some have dubbed “three-parent IVF,” result in a baby born with DNA from three people -- a mother and father, as well as a female donor. That genetic information would be passed down from generation to generation, a prospect that has raised a host of ethical questions.
For instance, what will the effect of this type of treatment have on the baby? Could this well-intentioned procedure lead to genetic modification and a demand for so-called “designer babies?”
These are the questions being asked by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the U.K.’s independent regulator for IVF treatments and embryo research.
About one in 200 children are born each year with a form of mitochondrial disease, a condition that’s passed down from a mother to her child. Symptoms can vary, ranging from speech problems and hearing loss to mild fatigue and muscle pain.
Researchers say “three-parent” fertility techniques could prevent mothers from passing mitochondrial conditions on.The techniques could become legal if the British public is in favour of them.
How it works
There are two techniques under consideration, both of which require a donor egg.
Pro-nuclear transfer (PNT) involves reconstructing an embryo to allow it to develop without a mitochondrial disease.
The average embryo contains two pronuclei, one from the mother’s egg and the other from the father’s sperm. With PNT, those pronuclei are transferred into a donor embryo that has healthy mitochondria. (In this case, the donor embryo has had its own pronuclei removed.)
Another technique is maternal spindle transfer (MST), which is a similar procedure involving an egg that hasn’t been fertilized with the father’s sperm yet.
A “maternal spindle” is something that sits within an egg and contains the mother’s DNA. In MST, the spindle is removed from the mother’s egg and placed into a healthy donor egg. The resulting egg is able to be fertilized with the father’s sperm.
‘Ways of getting around this’
Ethicist Shawn Winsor, with the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics, noted these procedures are only relevant to a small subset of the population. Namely, women with faulty mitochondria who want to have a child that’s genetically related to them.
“There’s ways of getting around this without having to do this procedure,” he told CTV News Channel on Tuesday afternoon, noting that one could just acquire a donor egg.
“Do we want to take the chances with slippery slope implications for a tiny group of people? That’s something I think the public needs to weigh in on.”
In Canada, it’s prohibited to alter the human genome in a way that will be passed on from generation to generation.