Researchers at Oregon Health and Sciences University say they have created human embryos with genes taken from one man and two women for the purpose of preventing babies from inheriting rare diseases, but the technique has set off a fierce ethics debate.
According to the Associated Press (AP), researchers say they do not plan to use the embryos to produce children and are not sure if the technique will ever be put into use; but news of the embryos touched off an ethical debate similar to the one that occurred in England in 2008 when similar embryos were created.
In the technique, doctors use unfertilized eggs from a patient as well as those of a healthy donor. The nucleus DNA from the donor eggs is removed and replaced with nucleus DNA from the patient’s eggs. The resulting eggs have the prospective mother’s nucleus DNA, but the donor’s healthy mitochondrial DNA which does not determine the physical attributes of the child.
In the British experiments, the DNA from a second woman amounted to less than one percent of the embryo’s genes and simply enabled scientists to replace defective genes. Again, these embryos were not used and whether or not they were destroyed is unknown.
“The British government is asking for public comment on the technology before it decides whether to allow its use in the future,” the AP reports. “One concern it cites is whether such DNA alteration could be an early step down a slippery slope toward ‘designer babies’ — ordering up, say, a petite, blue-eyed girl or tall, dark-haired boy.”
In June of this year, a British bioethics group endorsed the technology only if it is proven safe and effective. To date, the safety of the technique for both the child and the child’s descendants is unknown although scientists say monkeys born from this procedure are healthy.
However, Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., told the AP that these safety concerns might not materialize for generations.
While the kind of diseases it seeks to fight can be terrible, she said, “this might not be the best way to address it.”
Researchers are hoping to get federal approval to test the procedure in women, but current restrictions on using federal money for human embryo experimentation are preventing it.
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