MANCHESTER, England (CNS) — A Catholic bioethics institute criticized plans by the British government to create “genetically modified children” free of hereditary disease and said the treatment could affect the child’s descendants in unknown ways.
The Department of Health announced June 28 that, later this year, it will publish draft regulations on two mitochondrial replacement techniques.
The techniques can result in the creation of a single baby by several genetic parents, and one of the processes has been nicknamed “three-parent IVF” by the British media. No country in the world so far permits the procedure, meaning that Britain would be the first to create the first babies using the technique, probably by 2015.
The government has said there is general support for the techniques among the public, but the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, an Oxford-based institute serving the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland, said it was disturbed by the proposals.
A statement posted on the center’s website said that the technique would genetically alter not only the baby but also the child’s descendants. Government proponents say descendants would also be free of the genetic disease because of the altered DNA.
“Mitochondrial replacement is an extremely radical step that affects future generations,” said Helen Watt, senior research fellow at the Anscombe center. “It bears little resemblance to legitimate gene therapy affecting a born individual alone.
“Mitochondrial replacement treats no one — it merely manufactures a new child, who will then be at risk of unknown harms of various kinds, as will his or her descendants,” she said.
Two methods are being proposed, one of which — pronuclear transfer — is “particularly objectionable,” according the Anscombe statement.
Potential parents would go through the procedure for in vitro fertilization, and part of the embryo would be combined with parts of a donor embryo — which actually could involve four parents, not just three.
Both embryos are destroyed in the process, and the mother’s embryo is effectively cloned and repackaged before the cells begin to multiply and grow into a baby.
“The wish for a child to whom one is some way genetically related — as opposed to an adopted child, for example — cannot be used to justify cloning, embryo destruction, genetically modifying the child or altering the germline,” it said.
An earlier briefing paper prepared by Anscombe and posted on its website also raised the potentials of generations of genetically modified children against a broad range of potential diseases.
“If alteration of the germline is allowed for mitochondrial disease, then it will certainly be requested for other diseases,” the briefing paper said. “Do we want genetically modified children?”
The other technique is maternal spindle transfer, which involves the extraction of the genetic material from a mother’s ovum, which is then inserted into an eviscerated healthy donor ovum before fertilization by the father. Because this involves three parties — the mother, an ovum donor and the father — this process has become known as “three-parent IVF.”
Mitochondria are the biological power packs that give energy to nearly every cell of the body, according to a June 28 statement on the Department of Health website. Defects can leave the body cells starved of energy, resulting in muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure and death in the most extreme cases, it says.
The British government estimates that defective mitochondria affect one in every 6,500 babies.
Dame Sally Davies, the government’s chief medical officer, predicted that between five and 10 healthy babies would be born each year using the techniques.
“Mitochondrial disease, including heart disease, liver disease, loss of muscle coordination and other serious conditions like muscular dystrophy, can have a devastating impact on the people who inherit it,” she said in a June 28 statement.
“People who have it live with debilitating illness, and women who are affected face passing it on to their children,” she said.
“Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop these diseases being passed on, bringing hope to many families seeking to prevent their future children inheriting them,” she said. “It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can.”
The regulations are expected to be presented in Parliament in 2014.