By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Scientists in Oregon have produced the first creature with genetic material from three parents, a technique they hope to use one day to prevent children from inheriting servere genetic diseases from their parents.
The research, which was published in the journal, Nature, was conducted at the Oregon National Primate Research Center involved transplanting mitochondrial DNA from the egg of one macaque monkey into another. The modified eggs were then fertilized and the embyros implanted in a surrogate monkey.
Four live births occurred and tests showed that none of the monkeys had any trace of the original mitochondrial DNA, only the transplanted material, suggesting that the process was successful.
“We consider it a big achievement,” said Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who led the research. “Anything we study and achieve in non-human primates can be translated much more easily to humans.”
The procedure could be used for women who are at risk of passing along a mitochondrial disease. Although more than 99 per cent of a cell’s DNA is carried in the nucleus, a small amount resides in the mitochondria — tiny energy-producing structures inherited from the mother — and it is mutations in this mitochondrial DNA that can cause disease.
Mitochondrial diseases range from mild conditions to more severe defects that can trigger severe brain, heart, muscle and liver conditions, as well as cancer, diabetes, blindness and deafness.
A woman could have her eggs modified by replacing her faulty mitochondria with healthy DNA from an egg donor. The “new” egg would then be fertilized by her partner’s sperm and implanted in her womb.
Dr. Mitalipov believes the technology can be applied “pretty quickly” in humans, and is planning to apply to an internal ethics board and the US Food and Drug Adminstration for permission to try it with human eggs.
Clinical use will have to wait for the results of experiments with humans and follow-up studies on the health of the four monkeys. “It may take a few more years,” he said.
The technique is controversial for a variety of reasons. The children it creates would inherit genetic material from three parents. While the mother and father would contribute most of their child’s DNA, a small amount would come from a second woman donating healthy mitochondria. These new genes would then be passed to successive generations.
British scientists at Newcastle University are also experimenting with this procedure. However, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act (HFEA), which was passed by British lawmakers last year, allows such experimentation on embryos but forbids them to be implanted into a womb. This provision is meant to protect society from the results of macabre experimentation with cloning, human-animal hybrids, etc.
In the U.S., federal money cannot be used for experiments on embryos deliberately created for research but could be supported with private or state funds. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would have to approve any use to create babies and a current ban on procedures that genetically modify embryos blocks clinical applications.
In the 1987 document, Donum Vitae, the Church teaches that in vitro fertilization, the process by which these embryos are created, is illicit because it opposes the dignity of procreation and the conjugal union, and because it treats the human embryo as a product of technology rather than what it is – a gift from God.
The Church also points out that genetic engineering of this type objectively deprives a human being of his or her proper perfection and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the person. These procedures, especially those that introduce a third parent into the mix, deprive children of their relationship with their parents and can hinder the maturing of their personal identity. It can damage personal relationships families as well as have repercussions on civil society.
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