BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
Frankenstein babies and designer babies? Ethical concerns raised by "3 person embryos"
Author: Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD
BIOETHICS TODAY, March 18, 2015
The story about the UK passing a law to allowa reproductive technology called mitochondrial donation, what has been informally known as three person or three parent embryos, recently dominated the news.Part of the reason this story received so much attention is because the idea of a child with more than two biological parents sounds really scary, even Frankensteinish. While new medical technologies often raise ethical concerns, it is imperative to understand the science behind these technologies in order to accurately assess the likelihood and degree of potential harms caused by these technologies. In the case of three parent embryos, once we understand the science, this technology is not as threatening as it may initially appear.
The UK will only allow mitochondrial donations in cases where women could pass along mitochondiral diseases to their children. There are various types of mitochondiral diseases, which affect approximately one in 8,500 people and can lead to serious and fatal conditions. The mitochondrial are located in teh cytoplasm of the cell and serve as the cell powerhouses. Mitochondria have their own set of DNA with the 37 genes and a mitochondiral disease occurs when there is a mutation in the mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial donation allows women who are at risk for passing along mitochondrial diseases to the children to avoid doing so by using the mitochondria of a donor. There are two ways this can be done. In the first way, known as maternal spindle transfer technique, the nucleus from the donor egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus from the intended mother's egg. The resultant egg will carry the nucleus with all the genetic information from the intended mother, but will also contain the healthy mitochondrial DNA from the donor egg. The second way, known as pronuclear transfer, removes the nucleus from a donor embryo and replaces it with the nucleus of an embryo that contains the genetic material from intended mother and father. Here again, the resultant embryo contains the genetic material from the intended parents, but avoids inheriting mitochondrial diseases because donor mitochondria is used.