Leftwing bioconservative Marcy Darnovsky who heads up the Center for Genetics and Society has an op-ed in today's New York Times decrying "Genetically Modified Babies." In this case, she is fulminating about a Food and Drug Administration technical meeting to consider an in vitro fertilization technique in which defective mitochondria in a woman's eggs are replaced with healthy ones from another woman. Mitochondria which function as cellular power plants have their own small genomes outside of the nuclei of cells. Children inherit their mitochondria from their mothers and between 1,000 to 4,000 children per year are born with diseases arising from defects in their mitochondria.
The FDA panel is considering approval of a procedure in which defective mitochondria in a woman's eggs are replaced with healthy mitochondria derived from eggs donated by another woman. The goal is for a woman to bear genetically related children who will be free of inherited mitochondrial disease.
Bioluddite Darnovsky objects that…
…these procedures are deeply problematic in terms of their medical risks and societal implications. Will the child be born healthy, or will the cellular disruptions created by this eggs-as-Lego-pieces approach lead to problems later on? What about subsequent generations? And how far will we go in our efforts to engineer humans?…
…many scholars, scientists and policy makers have urged a different approach: We should carefully and thoughtfully apply the tools of human genetic engineering to treat medical conditions in people, but we should not use them to manipulate the genetic traits of future children. Genetic modifications of sperm, eggs and early embryos should be strictly off limits. Otherwise, we risk venturing into human experimentation and high-tech eugenics.
Unfortunately, there are now worrisome signs that opposition to inheritable genetic modifications, written into law by dozens of countries, according to our count, may be weakening. British regulators are also considering mitochondrial manipulations, and proponents there, like their counterparts in the United States, want to move quickly to clinical trials.
The mitochondrial replacement technique is not at all "deeply problematic." In fact, the FDA panel has finally gotten around to considering a technique that the agency banned after essentially the same procedure was being successfully deployed by team led by fertility researcher Jacques Cohen 13 years ago.
Cohen used the technique to help women to give birth to 20 children before the FDA shut down his work in 2001. At a conference some years later, I asked Cohen how the children were faring and he told me that 19 were healthy and one has an autism disorder. As it happens, some research finds a correlation between mitochondrial dysfunction and some cases of autism.
Just as the claque of timorous bioethicists always insist, the FDA banned Cohen's research - in this case for 13 years - in order for "society" to consider its "social and ethical" dimensions. In the meantime, thousands of mothers who otherwise might have been helped to bear healthy children now must watch as their kids suffer and die prematurely from mitochondrial diseases.
How very moral!