A baby reportedly born in Mexico five months ago using a controversial “three parent” fertility technique has raised some interesting questions about the line between medical breakthrough and ethical dilemma. New Scientist reports that successful use of the technique is the result of efforts by an international team led by Dr. John Zheng of New Hope Fertility Center in New York City.
“This [birth] heralds a new era in preimplantation genetics and represents a novel means for the treatment of families at risk of transmitting genetic disease,” Prof Darren Griffin, an expert in Genetics at the University of Kent, told the BBC. “With radical new treatments like this there are always challenging ethical issues, however any concerns need to be balanced against the ramifications of not implementing such a technology when families are in need of it.”
And the family of this healthy little boy, who hails from Jordan, was certainly in need of it. The mother of the child had a genetic mutation that caused Leigh syndrome, a neurological disorder that usually results in death within three years of life. According to reports, her first two children died from the disease. After tons of research and a little convincing, the family spoke to Dr. Zheng about the possibility of using the three parent fertility technique, which replaces the genetic mutation that causes Leigh syndrome with healthy DNA from a third party.
They now have a thriving little boy.
Is the term “three-parent baby” even accurate?
From a lay perspective, the term “three parent baby” makes perfect sense. Doctors are taking genetic components from three people to create a healthy embryo. But it’s not that simple.
From a more scientific point of view, saying that the baby was born to three parents simplifies a rather complex process. And, the fact is, the baby born during this process will get the majority of his genetic characteristics from the two parents who sought the procedure, not the donor who provided the healthy mitochondria.
“While referring to the procedure as ‘three-parent IVF’ makes for compelling copy, in reality, it is not accurate. It’s also not nearly as controversial or ethically problematic as the ‘three-parent’ moniker makes it sound,” bioethicist Dr. Elizabeth Yuko wrote in a piece entitled “The Fear-Mongering of ‘Three-Parent IVF,’” to which she pointed us when asked for a statement on the subject.
“Technically, the resulting child would inherit DNA from the sperm provider and both egg providers, but all of the 20,000 genes on the child’s 23 pairs of chromosomes come from the primary egg and sperm providers; less than 0.2% of the total DNA would come from the donor egg,” says Yuko.
A question of medical ethics
Dr. Zheng had to travel to Mexico for the procedure because it is banned in the United States and other western countries. Mitochondrial transfer raises the same ethical question as things like cloning: how far is too far?
Those in favor of three parent babies say that it’s giving the gift of life to babies who wouldn’t thrive otherwise. It’s also giving that same gift to families who have struggled to conceive healthy babies. Essentially “editing out” these diseases could potentially eradicate those conditions forever.
Those who oppose three-parent babies, however, look beyond the healthy bouncing baby that results to the possible negative effects this seemingly small gene alteration could have on future generations. Perfect little humans now, medical anomalies later? Or even just from a moral standpoint, is it okay to edit the genes of future generations without their consent?
“While there are other procedures that—for better or worse—strip future children of their ability to consent (think: everything from in utero surgical procedures, to doctors and parents making decisions regarding the genitalia of a baby born intersex), mitochondrial donation goes one step further, impacting not only a fetus or infant, but future generations as well,” says Yuko.