Editorial: Fear unfounded

With Britain recently deciding to proceed with draft regulations on the mitochondria replacement technique for preventing women from transmitting mitochondrial disorders to their children, the method joins the list of revolutionary fertility and embryology tools that have come under opposition and criticism. In the recent past, the somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) method has faced much resistance on ethical grounds. More than the real challenges of producing healthy organs for therapeutic use, it was the pro-life stand against the destruction of embryos for harvesting stem cells that grounded the path-breaking technique in many countries. In fact, phrasing the technique as ‘cloning’ had already prejudiced the public. Similarly, the idea of a woman, other than the mother, providing genetic material to a baby has not gone down well with everyone. As in the case of SCNT, opposition to the mitochondria replacement technique stems from the labelling — ‘three parents.’ While mitochondria from a healthy woman do provide some genetic material, the genes within do not in any way contribute to the working of the nuclear DNA that defines a person — in appearance and function. Mitochondria are the power producers of a cell and do not in any way contribute to the traits that make us humans. Hence, any fear that the latest development is a slippery slope that would lead to producing ‘designer babies’ is unfounded.

Another major concern is the long-term implication of using mitochondria from another woman as they are passed on from one generation to another. However, it must be noted that a woman contributes both nuclear DNA and mitochondria while a man contributes only nuclear DNA. The inheritance of donated mitochondria, which are passed down the maternal line, will stop with the succeeding generation if the baby is male. While the concerns and fear are baseless, the benefits are significant. In Britain alone, around one in 6,500 children is born annually with a severe mitochondrial disease like muscular dystrophy. Current methods can only reduce but not eliminate the risk; no treatment is available either. It is important to note that the British government has to change the law before the technique can be used. Even after it is legislated by the end of next year, it will take a few more years for this tool to become clinically available in the U.K.; more research needs to done to find out the safest method that can be used. By engaging the public prior to decision-making and allowing only licensed clinics to offer the technique, Britain has once again shown the way to go ahead with such sensitive scientific advancements.

Published in The Hindu on July 6, 2013