Mitochondrial transplant for human embryosThursday, 14 February, 2008
Apparently, British scientists have ‘created an embryo from three people’s DNA‘. I’m a bit behind on this story (chronologically, at least), but that shouldn’t matter. (UPDATE – this isn’t actually new. Babies were born with DNA from three people way back in 1998)
Researchers at Newcastle University took the nucleus from a human embryonic cell and transplanted it into an anucleated human cell. This served to swap the mitochondria (and other organelles in the cytoplasm) surrounding the nucleus from those of the mothers, to those of the donor. So, I would call it a mitochondria transplant, and rate it ethically similar to a heart transplant. If your child has a malformed heart, you have a heart transplanted from another person save her life. If you child would have mutated mitochondria (carrying muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, heart disorders or one of many other mitochondria disorders), then why not replace those?
But I guess it must be an ethical problem for some because, technically, a child resulting from this would have DNA from three sources. Nuclear DNA would be a combination from mother and father, and mitochondrial DNA from the donor.
This has obviously caused a reaction, because Prof. Patrick Chinnery, one of the lead researchers, has said:
“Most of the genes that make you who you are are inside the nucleus. We’re not going anywhere near that.”
Personally, I say why not? But that’s not all. Chinnery also tried to distance himself from human genetic engineering by saying:
“We are not trying to alter genes, we’re just trying to swap a small proportion of the bad ones for some good ones.”
Of course, this is entirely genetic engineering. Under the category of ‘swapping bad genes for good ones’ would come transgenic humans (say, swapping human Pseudogene ΨGULO for the active gene found in monkeys, so humans would never get scurvy) or even swapping human chromosomes for entirely synthetic but ‘superior’ models.
Interestingly, the work is technically germline genetic engineering if the child is female. This is because any child born from a mother that has had the ‘mitochondria transplant’ will also have the same mitochondria (mitochondria from the father are found in sperm, and power the sperm all the way to the egg, but don’t actually contribute to fertilisation).
So, with this in mind, let us look at the legality of the therapy. In Britain, this will be discussed in the House of Commons in March, and I will of course blog about anything interesting to come from that. In Canada, however, Bill C-6 ‘An Act Respecting Assisted Human Reproduction and Related Research‘ , which was actually approved four years ago and is current law in Canada, says the following in Section 5 (‘Prohibited Activities’):
No person shall knowingly for the purpose of creating a human being, create an embryo from a cell or part of a cell taken from an embryo or foetus or transplant an embryo so created into a human being.
So, this research would be illegal in Canada.
A person commits an offence if:
(a) the person intentionally creates or develops a human embryo by a process of the fertilisation of a human egg by a human sperm outside the body of a woman; and
(b) the human embryo contains genetic material provided by more than 2 persons.
Maximum penalty: Imprisonment for 15 years.
So, certainly appears to be illegal here in Oz to save your child from mitochondrial disorders by ‘swapping’ mitochondrial genetic material.
I won’t look at the US, because reproduction is generally under state jurisdiction there. But I will look at the Council of Europe’s ‘Convention on Human Rights with Regard to Biomedicine‘, which states:
Article 13 – Interventions on the human genome
An intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants.
Which leads to a very interesting conclusion – In European countries that follow this convention, it is only legal to have a son free from mitochondrial disorders, because a daughter could pass on her healthy mitochondria to her children (and we wouldn’t want to ‘endanger human dignity’ or whatever the hell the CoE was thinking then they wrote this law. Time for an update, no?)
So, now I think we can all understand why Prof. Chinnery was trying to dodge the accusation of genetic engineering – because his research is pretty much illegal in most Western nations (and possibly Britain too, depending what the House of Commons thinks).