Using DNA from three people to create a baby is safe, according to a major research study. The study is trying to help women at risk of passing on serious genetic disorders to have a healthy child. Last year the UK became the first country to approve laws to permit the procedure.
Mothers can pass along potentially life-threatening diseases through their mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells, and they contain their own set of DNA with 37 genes. Once a sperm fertilizes an egg, the father's mitochondrion dissolve and the mother’s mitochondrial DNA sticks around. Mitochondrial DNA doesn't carry information about specific traits--all of that information comes from the nucleus. Yet when a mother passes abnormal mitochondrial DNA on to her baby, the child can have problems generating enough energy in his or her cells. So, swapping out unhealthy mitochondria could prevent deadly mitochondrial diseases such as heart, kidney, and liver failure, as well as muscular dystrophy.
Because of how new the procedures are and the way they tamper with the fertilization process, many groups aren’t too happy about the idea of three-parent IVF. Even so, genetically modifying embryos brings about ethical questions, such whether this would set a precedent for other modifications.
Slippery slope toward “designer" babies?
Some interest groups have expressed concern about the potential for in vitro fertilized eggs that are genetically engineered to have, for example, blonde hair, more intelligence, or increased athleticism. The Human Genetics Alert took an ethical stance against mitochondrial transfers, because they say it will “inevitably lead to a future of ‘designer babies’.” Experts, however, aren't convinced the leap from mitochondrial transfer to genetic trait modification is so direct.
“The intention here is purely therapeutic,” says David DeGrazia, a philosophy professor at George Washington University who specializes in bioethics. “It’s to avoid certain diseases an embryo and then a baby can have as a result of mitochondria. Mitochondria don’t have anything to do with the characteristics that might be sought in a designer babies.”
The “slippery slope” concept usually applies to any new, ethically questionable medical procedures. The idea is that science is automatically going to keep pushing ahead with no checks on how far it goes. But that’s not always the case, says Lisa Campo-Engelstein, a professor of bioethics and obstetrics & gynecology at the Albany Medical College. “We can put limits on [the procedure], but we have to be willing to do so.”
The designer baby concept is frightening. If you can imagine turning out physically and intellectually perfect babies by the millions, it is pretty daunting. Some would be artists and some would be scientists, of course, and everything in between, but they would seem like a separate species. And where would we stop the modifications? It seems we always go too far before we draw back. We would be defying nature. There's always some kind of penalty for that. And some would say, 'no one should play God.'
So although the 'three person baby' concept can prevent genetic disease, it may also lead us in the direction of an ethical nightmare. Scientists are not known for stopping research when they are on to something good.