Modified embryos coming to the UK

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DNA Fingerprint 4 by flaivoloka

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Today I read a BBC News article about so called three-way babies. The article claims that the UK government is to draft a regulation that will allow the use of a 3rd person’s DNA during IVF treatment to remove mitochondrial diseases, a group of diseases passed by the mother via mitochondrial DNA.

I’m fairly sceptical these days about the reliability of the BBC reporting, especially as their article comes across as very much against this technology. In fact, an article by the Independent gives figures that the BBC does not, stating:

Mitochondrial disease […] is carried by thousands of women and is passed down the maternal line, leading to the birth of about 100 severely disabled children every year. Some women with the disorder have had up to six children who have died because of the severity of their disabilities.

The only information the BBC’s article gives along these lines doesn’t even begin to make clear the impact this has:

Defective mitochondria affect one in every 6,500 babies. This can leave them starved of energy, resulting in muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and death in the most extreme cases.

While people will throw around phrases like “designer babies” and movies like Gattaca show us the potential impact, I for one am all for this technology, so long as it is regulated correctly. And it looks like this is already being addressed. According to The Independent’s article, the heads of the Academy of Medical Science and other bodies have already written to the government saying that regulations should be drawn up ahead of time. This is great, so long as the government listens to their advise regarding the contents and that the regulations are adhered to.

My mind always likes to run away with scenarios that could result from technology like this. I wonder how well guarded the technology is; could another country without regulations in place reproduce the tech? However, given that this technique only replaces the mitochondrial DNA I’m not sure how it could be misused, other than preventing kings under car parks being identified.

I’m left feeling somewhat torn about this technology. While it itself seems harmless, it is a small step to introduce other “modifications” to eggs or embryos. For now though I’ll hold on to the fact that this will save the lives of many babies and help prevent many debilitating diseases affecting lives.

If you would like to know more about mitochondrial diseases, please visit the Foundation for Mitochondrial Medicine website.

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