Designed Genetic Change

In April 1971, the US National Institutes of Health organised a conference to determine whether the introduction of deliberate genetic changes in organisms was conceivable in the near future. Provocatively titled Prospects for Designed Genetic Change, the meeting hoped to update the public on the possibility of gene manipulations in humans, and consider the social and political implications of such technologies. 

No such method to manipulate genes (even in simple organisms) was available in 1971, the panelists noted – but its development, they felt confident, was only a matter of time. “This is not science fiction, ” one geneticist declared. “Science fiction is when you […] can’t do anything experimentally…it is now conceivable that not within 100 years, not within 25 years, but perhaps within the next 5 to 10 years, certain inborn errors…will be treated or cured by the administration of a certain gene that is lacking – and we have a lot of work to do in order to prepare society for this kind of change.” (The Gene)

45 years later, this year, Dr John Zhang engineered a baby -one without the mother’s abnormal mitochondria DNA. The controversial procedure removes the nucleus from the mother’s egg and transfers it into the donor’s healthy egg with normal mitochondria. With In-vitro fertilisation (IVF), the egg is fertilised with the father’s sperm and placed in the mother’s uterus.

The technique gave birth to a baby boy who carries less than 1 per cent of the abnormal mitochondria DNA. Unlike his siblings who died aged six and 8 months respectively, he may be able to live, free of fatal disorders that affect his developing nervous system. (read more here)

The controversy that surrounds this breakthrough is that of the combination of DNA of 3 parents. However, it must be noted that mitochondria are the cell’s energy factories and are separate from the DNA that determines a child’s inherited traits. The mutation in mitochondria DNA results in a power failure, leading to failing muscles, brain, heart, etc. Arguably, it is incorrect to label it thus as a 3-parent baby, since what changes is only the power source, and not the genetic code that makes a baby the product of his/her parents.

Furthermore, it has recently been discovered that infertile mothers who use donor eggs to conceive, do pass their DNA to their child. Do we then label these cases as “3-parent babies”?

Also, the donor in most cases of assisted fertility do not have legal rights as a parent to the child who is born. As a donor, he or she has no interest in fulfilling the general duties of a parent, and hence should not be pulled into the picture merely to invite public discourse.

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