News emerged last night of a new technique for avoiding mitochondrial disease. From what I can tell, the technique looks like a version of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, and it involves removing the nucleus from a fertilised egg and placing it into an enucleated donor egg. Doing this means that any problems with the mitochondria in the original egg can be sidestepped.
It also means that, in essence, the resultant baby would have three biological parents, inasmuch as it would be the product of three distinct gametes.
The HFE Act 2008 would seem to allow room for the use of the technique without a substantial change in the law; although it forbids the implantation of an egg or embryo the genetic material of which has been altered, there is leeway granted in respect of mitochondrial disease:
Regulations may provide that—
(a) an egg can be a permitted egg, or
(b) an embryo can be a permitted embryo,
even though the egg or embryo has had applied to it in prescribed circumstances a prescribed process designed to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease.
(I’m willing to be corrected in my understanding by any lawyers who happen to be reading this; but from what I can make out, the law as it stands requires alterations to the regulations rather than new legislation.)
The procedure, it seems to me, ought to be welcomed – and welcomed pretty unequivocally, and for obvious reasons. However, the media have felt the need to dig out at least some dissenting voices. The BBC’s dissenter of choice is Donald Bruce, whose background is in chemistry and theology, but who still apparently counts as an “ethics expert”, having been “former director of the Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland”.
He says that “the research raise[s] important ethical issues as well as potential risks”.
“If the Newcastle results are taken forward to medical application, they need to be applied under very strict controls, and only where serious disease is otherwise likely to result.”
The work raised several ethical problems, he explained, including safety risks, children with DNA from two mothers, and making genetic changes to unborn children.
This looks to me like his standard response to just about anything, and there’s a range of canards there, all of which are very easily dealt with.
First, the safety risks. It is, of course, possible that there are big risks with the technique. There are risks with all medical interventions, and arguably more known unknowns and unknown unknowns with new interventions. That, of course, is not a reason to hinder them, and it’s not a reason to hinder this, either. At most, it’s a reason to take care – which is exactly what we’d want anyway.
Besides, we wouldn’t use the technique simply for the hell of it anyway. It’s only an option when there’s a serious chance of a catastrophic illness. So even if there are dangers with the technique, these have to be balanced against the dangers of natural conception that risks the illness. That is: even if (for the nonce) the technique is dangerous, it doesn’t follow that it’s the most dangerous option.
(On this point, Sky quotes Alison Murdoch, who seems to be right on the money: “They have to decide whether to have no children or go on getting pregnant and having babies that die because they are abnormal, or they could take a risk on a new treatment that we know can virtually eliminate mitochondrial disease.” That is to say, the real ethical problem has to do with not exploiting the opportunities presented by the technique.)
I don’t understand why “children with DNA from two mothers” is a worry – I have DNA from countless millions of mothers, right back to my last common ancestor with a jar of Marmite. Moreover, mitochondrial DNA mutates very slowly anyway, so my mitochondria are likely to be pretty much the same as those from a lrge tranche of humanity – and Indo-European humanity espcecially. And, anyway: who cares? I mean, seriously: why on Earth is anyone bothered by the provenance of a person’s genes? My relationship with my parents has to do with them having played a major part in my formation; and though I can trace certain of my traits to one or the other of them – height from my mother, the “Whimster gap” between my front teeth to my father, hair from Satan himself – to suggest that genetics does or ought to make the blindest difference to that relationship is pretty much incomprehensible: it misses just about everything that’s important in human interaction.
Finally, Bruce is simply wrong about making genetic changes to unborn children. First, it’s not obvious why we shouldn’t make such changes, and so, until he says more, I think we’re entitled to find his claim a bit paltry. Second, though, it’s stretching things a bit to equate a newly-fertilised egg with a child. Though the cell contains DNA that will produce a child, that’s not the same by a long shot. For one thing, it’ll also produce the placenta, so unless you think that the placenta has the same status as a child, it’s hard to see how the fertilised egg does simply by virtue of genetic identity. Third – which follows from this – a single blood cell from an adult contains all the DNA to recreate them. Yet a blood cell doesn’t have the same moral status as a person. Ditto the undifferentiated cell being referred to here. Finally, persons count; but I’m not so sure about humans qua humans, or human cells qua human. Bruce seems to ignore that important metaphysical distinction.
So much for Donald Bruce. The coverage in the Mail is surprisingly good, all things considered; however, they wheel out Josephine Quintavalle as their token Jeremiah, and her comment is even more empty-headed than Bruce’s, complaining that it’s a step toward reproductive cloning (which it isn’t at all, given that the nucleus is fertilised from, er, two parents – but, anyway: is reproductive cloning so bad?), and that
We know very little about the beginning of life and it is extraordinary how willing we are to break down one of the most obvious barriers, which is that it takes a sperm and an egg to create an embryo. We have got to find better ways to cure these diseases.
This just makes me think that Quintavalle has no idea at all of what she’s talking about, and – like Bruce – has a very small stock of statements that she tries to stick to a wide range of situations. I’ll keep an eye on the CORE website, though, to see if anything more substantial appears.
(Incidentally, I am amused by the number of comments left on the Mail‘s site complaining that the technique is unnatural. Comments left by people by means of a series of devices that allow near-enough real-time interaction with potentially millions of people, potentially over thousands of kilometres. Yeah. Damn that unnaturalness.)
The Independent gives reasonable coverage (albeit via a Press Association re-hash), with no brain-dribble from nay-sayers (though I’ll keep my eye on the columnists over the next few days). The same applies to The Times and the Telegraph and The Guardian. (Actually, come to think of it, all their stories are pretty much identical, which is pretty damning: it suggests that all they do is change the byline of the press-release. At least the Indy had the decency to say that that’s what it’s doing.)