Some say it’s the equivalent of playing God.
Others say it’s part of the natural progression of science and genetic engineering.
The United States government could soon consider whether to allow scientists to use a technique that could result in babies with genetic material from three parents.
The idea is to address some incurable, often fatal diseases caused by dysfunctional mitochondria. Mutations in mitochondria, which produce energy inside human cells, lead to diseases that can be passed down to babies from their mothers. If the faulty genetic material (DNA) is replaced with healthy mitochondrial DNA from another mother, it could stop diseases from being transmitted.
Because doctors would use the nucleus of the original mother’s egg, the technique would essentially involve using DNA from three people.
The concept triggers serious ethical questions about science, including the obvious and most head-scratching one: If there are two women’s DNA in one egg, who’s the real mom? (Experts say that the donor DNA represents about 1 percent of the resulting embryo).
Touchy questions abound, and all require major brain muscle to answer: What are the long-term effects on the resulting life? Is this child eventually going to be affected by this genetic mix-and-match? And better yet, will this open the door to an uncontrolled jumble of genetically altered humans?
Hard to say, because it hasn’t been done — and studied.
Which is all the more reason to study this carefully.
Medical advances are supposed to improve patients’ quality of life. Scientists push boundaries to eliminate the burden of disease and, ultimately, to save lives.
Today’s breakthroughs have been preceded by undertakings that altered the course of medicine. Think about some of the extraordinary medical advances of the past 10 years: stem cells that can be tricked to repair the heart, and targeted cancer therapies that attack and kill cancer cells with specific mutations. In our hometown, we’ve witnessed the expansion of the organ transplantation field, with surgeons now attaching donated hands to people who lost their limbs.
Such procedures come loaded with complex ethical questions and challenges, but it’s essential not to confuse ethical dilemmas with unethical behavior. Are the scientists and physicians leading these projects committed to delivering efficient care, or are they pushing these advances to make money? Are they guided by courage, or greed?
To address questions surrounding the three-parent embryo, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put together an elite panel of experts that includes bioethicists, lawyers and scientists. The committee in February said it would be ethically permissible to move this project forward.
That didn’t mean much because the omnibus fiscal 2016 budget bill passed by Congress prohibited the government from using money to handle applications for experiments that genetically alter human embryos.
Whether or not three-parent babies become a reality — preceded, naturally, by clinical trials — it is important to understand the implications of these experiments. It’s one thing to stop disease. It’s another to misuse science in an attempt to create a tailor-made human.
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Luis Fábregas is the Tribune-Reviews’s deputy managing editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or [email protected]