Sunday, March 2, 2014

Genetics and Babies: The Future is Here

Last week, newspapers reported that the U.S. and British government are considering allowing scientists to create 3-parent babies using parts of eggs from two women and the sperm from one man.  The scientists want to cure mitochondrial diseases.  The governments worry about Frankenstein babies and the rise of eugenics. As for us regular people?  I think we need a bit more information.

First, let's talk about mitochondrial disease.  Mitochondrial disease is a disease of mitochondria.  Mitochondria are small units within every cell of the human body, except red blood cells, and are responsible for converting food into energy for the cell to use.  Think of mitochondria as the batteries for a cell.  Simple enough.

What happens when there is a problem with a person's mitochondria?  Diabetes mellitus and deafness (DAD), Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), Leigh syndrome, myoneurogenic gastrointestinal encephalopathy, myoclonic epilepsy with ragged red fibers,...  All of these are inherited, genetic conditions and none of them is harmless.

The interesting thing about mitochondria is that a person receives all their DNA encoding for it from their mother, thereby allowing the proposed mitochondrial replacement to potentially work.

The big question here is - do we applaud the scientists and queue up for the procedure, or do we thank them for the lovely thinking exercise and refuse to let them continue with live trials?

I believe that we need to either admit that we are going to jump start evolution with designer babies and begin by investing in the three parent babies.  Or we need to tell both men and women with genetically inheritable diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia or one of the mitochondrial diseases, that they need to stop having babies.  I know that this sounds cold, but what's the alternative?  Giving birth to someone who will have a short, unhappy, pain-filled life?

And what is truly so bad about designer babies?  Eventually, we will be able to have babies without diseases, with lowered risks for cancer, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.  I'm not talking about making generations of blond hair, blue eyed babies, but let's be real.  We need genetic diversity to continue as a species.  But that doesn't mean we can't create healthier babies.

What do you think about this?

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