Last week, the FDA began deliberations on whether or not to let scientists at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland pursue a controversial reproductive technology with humans using the DNA of three people to create a baby free of certain disease-linked defects. According to a Bloomberg report, the process works by replacing potentially variant DNA in the unfertilized egg of a hopeful mother with disease free genes from a female donor.
As always, the prospect of altering the human gene pool is an ethical hot potato. Proponent Dr. Alan Copperman, director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Mount Sinai says, “The most exciting part, scientifically, is to be able to prevent or fix an error in the genetic machinery.”
A voice of caution comes from Phil Yeske, chief science officer of the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, who says, “Once you make this change, if a female arises from the process and goes on to have children that change is passed on, so it’s forever.” That’s uncharted territory; we just don’t know what that means.”
A New York Times article describes the procedure in question as one that involves mitochondria, which is the cellular powerhouse that converts energy into a form that the cells can use. Defective mitochondria from the mother-to-be are replaced with healthy mitochondria from another woman, which can be done either prior to or after the egg is fertilized.
The Oregon researchers report that four macaque monkeys were born from just such a procedure in 2009 and three years later, they are said to be healthy. In fact, the genetic engineering was used in humans from 1997 to 2003 resulting in the birth of approximately 30 infants worldwide.
In 2003, the FDA slammed the door on the method of mitochondria being injected into fertilized eggs taking the position that genetically manipulated embryos are a biological product and subject to regulation resulting in halting the technique in humans. Research with laboratory animals, however, has continued and the researchers from Oregon claim that the mitochondrial procedure is ready for human consumption.
There are only two types of DNA … nuclear, which is handed down by both parents and mitochondria, which only comes from the mother. The implantation process replaces the donor’s nuclear DNA, which determines things like hair color and intelligence with the nuclear DNA of the prospective mother leaving the donor’s mitochondria in place.
The new designer egg is then fertilized with the father’s sperm in vitro and implanted in the mother’s womb. Scientist say the result will be a child that will be genetically free from a potentially fatal disease, yet still retain the physical characteristic of the parents.
“Every time we get a little closer to genetic tinkering to promote health … that’s exciting and scary,” says Dr. Copperman. “People are afraid it will turn into a dystopian brave new world.”
With the potential of irreversibly altering the human species, the question that the FDA will be struggling with is … “Should we be doing this?”
Cord Prettyman is a certified Master Personal Trainer and owner of Absolute Workout Fitness and Post-Re-hab Studio in Woodland Park. He can be reached at 687-7437 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.