A committee created at the behest of the Food and Drug Administration and consisting of renowned bioethicists and scientists has given reluctant approval to a new form of genetic engineering that involves genetic material from three parents. The application has a chance of preventing congenital diseases and is utilizes mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT), writes The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach.
The panel concluded that the MRT was ethically permissible, but warned the study should "go forward, but with caution." But the committee's approval was short-lived because of a congressional ban.
"The omnibus fiscal 2016 budget bill passed by Congress late last year contained language prohibiting the government from using any funds to handle applications for experiments that genetically alter human embryos."
Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon said the congressional stance will mean clinical applications that could eventually help families who want healthy babies will not be happening anytime soon. He added that it was unclear how the scientists will proceed.
The advisory panel was careful to explain that MRT should be used only rarely, with enormous care, complete government oversight and only for male embryos. The committee gave its report at a news conference at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C.
The report comes at a time when dramatic advances in genetic engineering are occurring, and the world is struggling to understand the ethics surrounding "playing God," a phrase referred to twice by panel member R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.
Another unprecedented technique was discussed in the same building two months ago and is known as CRISPR. The process will be used to study the early stage of human embryos, although the embryos will not be transferred to women.
The FDA felt it necessary to have the Institute of Medicine, now a part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, debate the ethical issues involved in MRT. The result of the procedure could be roughly equivalent to "three-parent babies." Officials in the UK have already approved experiments that would investigate the value of the technique.
Approximately 4,000 people in the US are born with mitochondrial disease annually. The disorder is a genetic mutation condition that can include seizures, liver disease, heart problems, and blindness. The disease is passed from mother to child, which leads many women who have the condition to adopt rather than risk passing potential health difficulties down to a baby, according to The Verge's Arielle Duhaime-Ross.
The procedure requires doctors to remove the nucleus of a donor egg that contains healthy mitochondria and use it to replace the nucleus from one of the mother's eggs. Then the sperm of the father is used to fertilize the altered egg.
Elissa Strauss of Slate reports the reason for using the technique only on male babies is to ensure that if unexpected side effects occur in a three-parent baby's mitochondrial DNA, it would not be passed down to future offspring.
An NPR story about the study included fears by critics that the procedure was just steps away from the creation of designer babies, children who are genetically modified for enhanced beauty, health, or increased ability to think and reason.
Duke bioethicist Nita Farahany notes that the amount of DNA provided by the mitochondria is extremely tiny, making it an exaggeration to say children are being made by three parents. She says a more accurate way to describe it is that the baby has donor organelles (mitochondria plays an organ-like role in the cell) in his or her cells, writes Annalee Newitz for Arstechnica.