Legal permission has finally been given for scientists to go ahead with three person IVF.
Officially called “early pronuclear transfer”, three person IVF involves removing the key genetic material of the parents from an embryo within hours of fertilisation. What is left behind is the woman’s faulty mitochondria. The removed parental DNA – containing all the key genes responsible for character and appearance and similar – is then transferred into another embryo. From a donor woman, that embryo has had its nucleus removed – but had healthy mitochondria. The nucleus is supplied by the removed parental DNA from the first embryo. Consequently, a healthy embryo is created, free of any genetic defects from the original embryo.
The key scientific matter here concerns mitochondria. Mitochondria are tiny structures which are outside the nucleus of a cell, and convert food into useable energy. Predisposed genetic faults in the mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) mean that the human body overall has insufficient energy for certain key functions. The result of that can cause a large range of serious genetic illnesses, including muscle weakness and hearing loss. Faulty mitochondria, and bad mDNA, are always passed on via the mother. Although causing illnesses, faulty mitochondria is not currently believed to impact upon appearance or personality.
Three person IVF is seen as way to eliminate certain genetic disorders. The UK is the first nation to approve what is a dynamic but controversial IVF procedure. Now that permission has been granted, further studies will be done at Newcastle University – under the watchful eyes of the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA), the regulatory body for such scientific experiments.
The Newcastle University experiments would get the healthy mitochobdria and mDNA of a donor woman to combine with the DNA and embryo of the existing parents. The result would be babies potentially free of some genetic illnesses – and with 0.1% of their DNA from the donor woman. It is that genetic material which would be passed down to future generations, thus eliminating the genetic illness from the family.
Recent experiments with three person IVF had led to safety concerns. Further, existing studies have shown that the technique does not always work; but this is in common with all IVF techniques. Earlier initial studies and experiments showed that the technique was not always successful. The amount of faulty mDNA transferred during the procedure was indded less than 2%, as predicted. However, one in five of the stem cell lines created via the technique actually showed an increase in carryover of defective DNA from the original embryo.
A recent study conducted involving in excess of 500 eggs from 64 donor women established that the new procedure did not adversely affect the development of the embryo. Further, the procedure significantly reduced the amount of faulty mitochondria being passed on. Following that and related studies, the procedure is now considered to be safe by scientists – and the HFEA agrees. With the necessary permission now granted, work can begin in earnest in trialling, understanding and improving three person IVF. Aside from the safety fears, the process is controversial.
The issue here is whether scientists should actually be using three person IVF. Essentially, the scientists are playing God by using human genetics to eliminate some genetic disorders. Although the instinctive desire is to help those with such disorders, and to prevent those illnesses in future – should we be doing that?
The medical profession always seeks to heal people, to cure, and to ‘do no harm’. Doctors and scientists will agree that preventing children from inheriting such diseases is ideal, and a way forward for medicine, and science. However, the ethics and morality are questionable. Should science be interfering with a natural process? Should science be effectively ‘designing’ such illnesses out of embryos? What are the side effects of eliminating such inherited traits? After millenia of evolution, and adapting to our surroundings and environment, human beings are at a stage unique to our species. As a species, we can now define and control our own genetic composition. As a species, we can influence and determine the next stages of our evolution. As a species, we now have the science to control our own destiny, genetic or otherwise.
Although the Newcastle University scientists will only be researching three person IVF, under regulatory rules, it is but the next step, and the next stage, in acquiring knowledge and power – over ourselves, and our own genetics.
The question is whether we should actually be carrying out such experiments – and, further on, should we be applying such knowledge. Although improving individual’s lives, and designed to ensure individual health by tackling genetic illnesses – that will be at a cost to humanity as a species, as we interfere with, and alter, genetic material which we still understand so little about. Although intended to help – such medicine could actually harm.
The debate has yet to be had – but already science has advanced to make such genetic research and implementation a moral and ethical issue and minefield. With each scientific advancement – the questions only increase.
Setting aside the moral ambiguity, what is certain is that such research needs, currently, to be controlled and regulated. Oversight and a legal framework and basis is vital at this early stage of such dramatic research.
The HFEA and government has over the last year given legal permission for further studies and research into three person IVF. Although the law is allowing for such study, for medical science – what about the morality and ethics undying such research?