For some time now I’ve been following a new ART technique that is being developed in the UK. It’s back in the news again and since it fits rather nicely with a topic I raised yesterday, it seemed like a good time to revisit the topic.
You can certainly go read the explanation, but here it is in a nutshell. A small number of women with healthy nuclear DNA carry defects in their mitochondrial DNA. If the eggs from these women are used for reproduction there’s a chance that the offspring will have genetic disorders transmitted via the mitochondrial DNA. (There’s a small number of those, but I gather they can be severe.)
It is possible to take the nucleus of an egg from one woman place it inside a hollowed-out egg from a different woman. You can do this where the first woman has defective mitochondrial DNA and the second woman does not and you end up with an egg that has entirely healthy DNA. Of course, it would also have DNA from two different women. If it is then fertilized you could create an embryo (which may ultimately become a child) who has three genetic parents–the two women and the man.
The news now is that the HFEA (the UK regulator of ART) has concluded that more work needs to be done with the techniques used here before they can be approved for clinical use. The concerns of the HFEA expressed here seem to have less to do with the ethical issues raised, which will not be addressed by more testing and experimentation, than with the safety issues. Given the comments of the scientists involved, it seems to me that the point at which the techniques will be approved for clinical use is not so very far off.
Like ICSI (the subject of yesterday’s post), this technique gives people a new way to become genetic parents. Indeed, that is really its sole value—women with defective mitochondrial DNA can, at this point, only become genetic parents with some risk to the child. If and when this technique is approved, they will be able to become genetic parents without risk to the child (or more accurately, with only whatever minimal risks the HFEA decides are acceptable.) Thus, these women will be able to become genetic parents, just as ICSI has allowed men with inadequate sperm or inadequate supplies of sperm to become genetic parents.
Now here there is an added wrinkle. The women who use this technology will, by definition, be people who care a good deal about genetic relationships. If they didn’t care, they could simply buy an egg. (I suppose I am making an assumption here that this system will have an added cost, but I think this is a fair assumption. You still need a third-party egg and you also need to harvest an egg from the original woman and then you need to do whatever laboratory procedures are involved.)
But remember that any child that results here will have a genetic link to the woman who provides the mitochondrial DNA. If genetic linkage is important than this one should be important as well, and so that leaves people using this technology to figure out how to give meaning to this additional genetic link.
While that’s an interesting prospect, I am drawn to the question I raised yesterday: This research is fueled by and dependent on people’s desires for a genetically related child. If more people were more willing to accept a genetically unrelated child, the demand for this sort of technology would weaken. If genetics were not seen as so important, the demand might actually collapse.
Would that be a bad thing? It seems to me that lots of research relevant to ART holds a range of benefits. So, for instance, the ability to understand the genetic origins of various disabilities has potentially very wide use. But for the moment at least, I don’t see that broad potential for this research.
This leads me to some questions: For those who place great value on genetic linkage, the research should be important as it allows people to achieve that great good–the genetically linked child. Thus, I wonder if (philosophically speaking) those people do in fact support the research. And for those who do not place great value on genetic linkage (and that includes me), shouldn’t we question the resources devoted to this sort of research?