February 05, 2015

If You Could Be God, Would You?

So this week in slightly creepy, somewhat amazing, and definitely controversial 21st century news, the UK is about to introduce laws that allow people to do some stuff that God hasn't signed off on: create babies with three parents.

Yep, that's right; the House of Commons (part of the UK Parliament) debated and decided this week that it's cool, God, we got this. "This" being using the DNA from three different people to make one super baby.

This means if the House of Lords also votes in favor of such laws (as they are expected to do), super babies will officially be a legal "thing."

It's a term that I just made up for the babies who have nuclear DNA from a mother and father, and mitochondrial DNA from an egg donor. These babies can't fly or anything like that but they may be far, far less likely to develop a disease of the mitochondria, which can cause damage to cells of the brain, heart, liver, skeletal muscles, kidney, and the endocrine and respiratory systems.

For all the normal people out there who don't instinctively know what mitochondrial DNA (aka mtDNA) is, it's DNA that's found in the mitochondria. (Anticlimactic, I know.) The mitochondria is a little structure (aka an "organelle") in your cells that is in mainly in charge of energy production for the cell.

The mtDNA (which makes up around 0.1% of a person's DNA) isn't quite as interesting as normal, nuclear DNA though; it doesn't do things like determine eye color, hair color, or other things you'd put in a Punnett square. Instead, it's only in charge of mitochondria-y things that make sure your mitochondria works correctly.

It doesn't sound like a huge deal but that's only because your mitochondria probably works right. If it didn't, you'd experience some fun things like loss of muscle coordination, muscle weakness, seizures, autism, diabetes, confusion, disorientation, blindness, and/or memory loss, among other things that suck.

Well first, you should know that mtDNA sort of redeems itself in terms of its "interesting factor" because it is only passed down from your mother. Unlike the rest of your DNA (which comes 50/50 from your mother and your father), you get 100% of your mtDNA from your mom.

For most people, this doesn't really mean much. But for a woman who has an mtDNA mutation that causes a malfunctioning mitochondria... well, you can see the problem. She's pretty much 100% guaranteed to pass that mutation on to her kid.

That is, unless she lives in the UK. Because this week, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons said that it's totally cool if scientists use a modified version of IVF to combine the DNA of a woman with an mtDNA mutation and the DNA of her baby daddy with the healthy mtDNA of a donor woman.

See the two different methods below.

(You can go here to read more.)

So the quick math: that's a baby with 99.9% of its DNA from its mother and father, and 0.1% of its DNA from the "other woman."

That's what a lot of people are saying. It's not quite a custom-made baby, but it's definitely one step closer to it. Plus, some scientists say that mismatches between donated mtDNA and host nuclear DNA could kinda eff things up. (Technically speaking.)

People on the other side say that we should be celebrating for the families who might no longer need to worry about things like mitochondrial induced blindness. Which, for those families with a history of mtDNA mutations, is a huge win.

Personally, I don't know where I stand. I've always been one to avoid slippery slopes when it comes to potentially unethical decisions.

On one hand, this slope may be less slippery than some slopes (for example, we could draw a very clear line between mtDNA transfer and nuclear DNA transfer that would make it clear that designer babies are not okay).

But then what happens if we discover a gene in nuclear DNA that is almost unequivocally responsible for Alzheimer's or colon cancer. What then? We've already said that mtDNA customization is fine; why is this different?

And then the slope would become a lot more slippery a lot more quickly.

Then again, I'm sitting here saying this with perfectly functional mitochondria. Perhaps I might think differently if I had crummy mtDNA. Luckily for me though, no one in Parliament has consulted me on this yet so I still have some time to decide.

What do you think: is this okay or is Parliament just going to piss God off?

If you're wondering where I got all of this info, here's some light reading for you:
MPs say yes to three-person babies
U.K. Parliament approves controversial three-parent mitochondrial gene therapy
What is mitochondrial DNA?
About Mitochondrial Disease - Mito FAQ