For years, scientists have been working on a technique that has the potential to eliminate a set of debilitating and incurable disorders caused by malfunctioning cell organelles. Now, British Health Agency officials are estimating this technique could become a reality within two years.
The procedure targets mitochondria–energy producing organelles with their own separate genomes that are prone to mutation and inherited maternally. If women have a mutation that affects this organelle, they could pass on diseases that affect the brain, heart, vision and hearing, kidneys, and muscles, among other things. Altogether, mitochondrial diseases affect at least 1 in 8500 births, according to the National Institute of Health.
To help women with faulty mitochondria conceive, fertility specialists have developed oocyte modification. This method involves taking genetic material from two women–one provides the ovum and the other provides the mitochondria–and a man to create embryos with healthy mitochondria. Simply put, children born of this method would have three genetic parents.
Sounds simple enough. But before it can become a reality, it has to be legal first.
Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority issued a report Tuesday indicating the techniques are not unsafe, but that more experiments are needed before clinical treatments begin. And the United States isn’t far behind, either. In February, an FDA panel held meetings about beginning early phase clinical trials.
Although initial findings are promising, trepidation regarding the potential effects of genetic modification remain. One option to ensure the method is sound would be to selectively implant embryos that are male, since they cannot pass on mitochondria. However, for some people this could pose an ethical dilemma–reviving decades old debate over “designer” children.
This advancement could also add a new dimension to the donor rights debate. In May, a decision by the California Court of Appeals upheld a new legal precedent that expands the parental rights of sperm donors. In a similar case from 2013, the Florida State Supreme Court awarded an egg donor parental rights. The woman, who donated her egg to her infertile partner, sought rights after the relationship ended. In both instances, the donors were not anonymous. Women who donate their mitochondria may have similar claims. But how much shared DNA is required for a person to legally be considered a parent? In the past, it has always been 50 percent, but that could soon change.