Designer Babies? Genetic Alterations Head Down a Slippery Slope

Should scientists be permitted to genetically alter babies with traits that can be inherited by future generations?  In the past week, the F.D.A. considered the science–not the ethics–behind what is called “mitochondrial manipulation.” Many bioethicists are worried, and think we are sliding down a slippery slope to “designer babies.” What is “mitochrondrial manipulation” and do bioethicists have reason to worry?

Mitochondria are cells that lie outside an egg’s nucleus and help provide the body with energy.  But mutations in the DNA of mitochondria can cause many life-threatening diseases.  By experimenting with rhesus macaque monkeys, researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University think they have figured out a way for women who carry the mutated DNA to deliver a healthy baby.  Researchers propose to remove the healthy genetic material in the nucleus of a woman’s egg or embryo, and inject it into a healthy donor egg or embryo (after first removing the genetic material in the nucleus of the donor).  Once fertilized, the egg, or the embryo, would be implanted in the woman’s womb.

On the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, sounded warning bells.  “Will the child be born healthy, or will the cellular disruptions created by this eggs-as-Lego pieces approach lead to problems later on?  What about subsequent generations?  And how far will we go in our efforts to engineer humans?”

The Oregon researchers have produced five healthy monkeys.  But so far none of the monkeys has reproduced, so researchers don’t yet know what mutations might occur in subsequent generations.  Similarly, we have no idea how mix-matching nuclear DNA and mitochondria DNA in women’s eggs and embryos will affect future generations of human beings.

Until recently, most policy makers have agreed that new genetic technologies should be used to treat medical conditions, so long as the techniques don’t create traits that can be inherited by subsequent generations.  But now, despite the inheritable effect of mitochondrial manipulation, researchers in the U.S. and other countries are anxious to begin clinical trials on humans.

As with all human medical experimentation, the risks to the individual must be weighed against the benefits to science and medicine, and the ends cannot justify the means.  Although in this case, the new technology might cure a serious medical condition, other options are available.  Women today can opt to have genetic testing and screening of eggs, in vitro fertilization with donor eggs, and even adoption.  The procedure itself is risky, as it can cause health issues, not only for the woman carrying the embryo, but also for the donor whose eggs are extracted, as well as the baby.

Are we heading down a slippery slope?  After all, a process like mitochondrial manipulation, which will affect the genomes of future generations, may lead to acceptance of “designer babies.”  As I said in my book For the Good of Mankind? “this notion of ‘designer babies’ brings back chilling memories of eugenics and the Nazi dream of creating a perfect race.” Clearly, this is a topic that needs to be publicly discussed and where laws and regulations will be needed for guidance.

Darnovsky concluded in her Op-Ed article, “Simply being able to do something doesn’t mean we should do it.” I agree.



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