..And Baby Makes 3.1
Nearly 4,000 babies are born with deadly genetic diseases in the United States each year. These genetic diseases are passed along from their mother. In most cases, the mother carries dormant genetic diseases in her mitochondria. Mitochondria convert food into energy and carry very little DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, only contain 37 genes, but even that small amount can carry deadly diseases (TutorVista, n.d., p.1). More common mitochondrial diseases include Leigh’s Syndrome and Alper-Huttenlocher Syndrome. Babies born with either of these diseases experience these symptoms after birth: seizures, strokes, cerebral palsy, skeletal weakness, muscular myopathy, heart conditions, bone marrow failure, and more (Goldstein, n.d., p.12).
Because of a relatively new process known as mitochondrial transfer, the number of babies born with genetic diseases could be greatly lowered. In the process of mitochondrial transfer, genetic diseases housed in mitochondria are eliminated by using a healthy donor’s mitochondria. There are two ways to go about the mitochondrial transfer procedure: pronuclear transfer and spindle nuclear transfer. In pronuclear transfer, the mother’s egg, the father’s sperm, and a female donor’s egg are involved. The sperm, fertilizes both female eggs, creates two zygotes. The female donor’s nucleus is then discarded and replaced with the mother’s nucleus. This maintains the integrity of the genetic makeup of the zygote (Zhang et al., 2016, p. 3). The more recently unearthed procedure, spindle nuclear transfer, uses a slightly different process but has the same end result, a healthy zygote. In the spindle nuclear transfer process, the donor egg is fertilized after the nucleus transfer. Ideally, no zygotes would be destroyed through this procedure (Craven et al., 2010, pp 13-14). Mitochondrial transfer will give thousands of people the opportunity to have healthy, biologically related children.
In April, a healthy baby boy was born in Mexico to a Jordanian couple who went through the spindle nuclear transfer procedure. Dr. John Zhang of the New Hope Fertility Clinic in New York City carried out this procedure in Mexico due to the stringent embryotic editing laws in the United States. Because the destruction of an embryo goes against the couple’s Islamic beliefs, Dr. Zhang had to come up with an alternative method of mitochondrial transfer, which resulted in spindle nuclear transfer.
Before the help of Dr. Zhang, the young couple had gone through four miscarriages and lost two young children to Leigh’s Syndrome. According to Dr. Zhang, the baby is “doing well.” (Zhang et al., 2016, p. 3)
Currently, Britain is the only country that is allowing for mitochondrial transfer. The UK parliament voted to allow research and treatments on mitochondrial transfer on February 3, 2015. On the contrary, the United States National Institute of Health (NIH) reiterated their ban on mitochondrial transfer research on April 29th 2015. The United States placed a federal ban on government funding of human embryotic experimentation in 1996. This ban, known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment, specifically prohibits creation and destruction of human embryos for research. While this amendment does not ban experimentation on human embryos outright, it does prevent government funding of embryotic research (Reardon, 2015, p.1). Some states have firm restrictions on embryotic research, while other states’ rules are less clear and enable private research. For example, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York have statutes that encourage private embryotic stem cell research, while states such as South Dakota explicitly prohibit any kind of experimentation on embryos (National Conference of State Legislators, 2016, p1).
In the United States government, the current state of affairs regarding mitochondrial transfer are inhospitable. Since 1996, the United States has viewed mitochondrial transfer as a slippery slope to human genetic modification and “designer babies.” Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of Oregon Health and Science University’s Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy, says, “policymakers should draw a clearer distinction between genetic enhancements and genetic corrections.” (Orcutt, 2016, p. 5) While the technology to create “designer babies” known as CRISPR-Cas9 exists, (Sander, Joung, 2014, p.1) a future of genetically enhanced people is far off. According to the PEW Research Center, most U.S. adults surveyed are opposed to the idea of “designer babies”(PEW, 2016).
Congress needs to look at mitochondrial transfer as a separate ethical issue, specifically the new approach pioneered by Dr. Zhang, spindle nuclear transfer (SNT). Through SNT, embryos are not being destroyed: only eggs and sperm. Mitochondrial transfer through SNT should be a stand-alone issue with its own regulations, much like In Vitro Fertilization.
Looking at the history of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), we understand that great leaps in medical advancement often face adversity. For example, “primitive” IVF experimentation began as early as 1884, when the first documented artificial insemination procedure was recorded. Throughout the next several decades, research and experimentation brought momentum to the future of a procedure known as IVF. But along with this comes difficulty: in 1932, Aldous Huxley published A Brave New World, which portrayed a world of “test tube babies.” This dystopian depiction created a negative image of the subject to the public eye.
In 1949, the Catholic Church publicly condemned the fertilization of eggs in a petri dish, arguing that such experimentation is playing God. Throughout several decades, the road to In Vitro Fertilization was littered with religious, medical, and government pushback. Finally in 1979, the first successful IVF baby was born (P.B.S., n.d., pp 6,17,22). Today, more than 61,000 babies are born each year because of IVF- that accounts for more than 1.5% of all births in the United States each year (Doucleff, 2014). IVF changed the face of the reproductive health industry in 1979. Mitochondrial transfer will have the same revolutionary effect if it is given proper research and funding.
The greatest obstacle mitochondrial transfer faces is rested on religious opposition. According to the Catholic Church’s Donum Vitae, “Medical research must refrain from operations on live embryos, unless there is a moral certainty of not causing harm to the life or integrity of the unborn child and the mother, and on condition that the parents have given their free and informed consent to the procedure. It follows that all research, even when limited to the simple observation of the embryo, would become illicit were it to involve risk to the embryo’s physical integrity or life by reason of the methods used or the effects induced.” (Bovone, n.d., p. 22)
The Roman Catholic Church has very definitive views on embryology; they believe that a human embryo is a person and has the rights of a person. Spindle nuclear transfer was first attempted because a couple wanted biological children, but did not want to dishonor their Islamic faith by destroying an embryo. This method of mitochondrial transfer should be looked at as not only a viable reproductive alternative for individuals who are opposed to the destruction of human embryos, but also for United States’ ban on human embryotic experimentation.
In a conversation between the National Catholic Register and Dr. Helen Watts of the Anscombe Bioethics Center in the UK (which was established by the Catholic Church in 1977), Dr. Watts explains the moral problems associated with mitochondrial transfer. “One technique moves genetic material from the egg of one woman to the egg of a donor, before fertilizing with sperm the combination egg in vitro to produce a “three-parent baby. The egg donor becomes a partial genetic mother of a child she will not be involved with in any way. This goes against what parenthood should be all about: unconditional sexual receiving, not producing, of a child to whom both parents are committed and who is related to them and them alone.” (Pentin, 2013, p. 10) In this statement, Dr. Watts uses jarring rhetoric and exaggeration to support her argument. Dr. Watts is correct when she says that genetic material is moved from the egg of one woman to the egg of a donor.
However, she fails to mention that this “genetic material” is the nucleus. The nucleus accounts for 99.9% of the DNA received by the mother. The donor only contributes about .1% of her DNA, which is carried in the mitochondria. The term “three-parent baby” is misleading because the donor only contributes mitochondria (Feltman, 2015). When Dr. Watts says, “The egg donor becomes a partial genetic mother of a child she will not be involved with in any way. This goes against what parenthood should be all about: unconditional sexual receiving, not producing, of a child to whom both parents are committed and who is related to them and them alone” (Pentin, 2013, p. 10), she discredits any woman or couple who has undergone fertility treatments such as IVF and artificial insemination. If Dr. Watts is saying that the legitimacy of parenthood is based on the biological relation and commitment of the parents, she writes off nearly 136,000 adoptions that take place in the United States each year.
The United States’ federal ban placed on mitochondrial transfer should be lifted. If the United States government would be open to having the conversation about mitochondrial transfer, thousands of individuals would not have to walk through the tragedy of losing a baby to an avoidable cause. The ethical issues presented against the case for mitochondrial transfer are inconsequential. The argument in favor of mitochondrial transfer, specifically through spindle nuclear transfer, has already been won-by science. The United States government needs to see this procedure for what it is: a progressive step that will mark the difference between a life of tragedy for thousands of individuals, and a life of blessing.