“Everything we do is a step toward designer babies…very much like an iPhone that’s designed in California and assembled in China.”
These are the exact words of Dr. John Zhang, a New York-based fertility doctor who is launching a company to commercialize the production of human beings through the very controversial, life-destroying, Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques.
According to the Center for Genetics and Society, Dr. Zhang had deliberately evaded US regulations and went to Mexico to produce a baby using this technique last year. Now he plans to launch his new market there for the purpose of using the technique as an infertility treatment.
And it seems he would eventually like to see things go even further.
Imagine a world where people are eliminated because they’re not perfect, or because their lives are judged to be worthless. Imagine scientists striving to create flawless human beings by destroying others.
Sounds like a nightmare.
Sadly, it is this same nightmare that became a reality just 60 years ago, in Nazi Germany. In the attempt to create a perfect, “master” race, millions of innocent people were exterminated. As a nation, we entered a world war to put a stop to this, and we hoped to never see it again.
Today, we need to ask ourselves if our convictions, and the character of our nation, have changed.
Recently making headlines, a new research endeavor has drawn national attention. It is called Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques (MRT), or “three-parent embryos”.
Just last year, this project was approved in the UK, and at the request of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an elite committee of bioethicists and scientists met in early February, 2016, to discuss the acceptability of this practice in the United States. The committee ended up recommending MRT to the FDA, concluding that it was ethically permissible, and scientists should “go forward, but with caution.”
According to the FDA committee’s report, MRT is “designed to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) diseases from mother to child.” As the committee puts it, it is meant to “satisfy the desire of women seeking to have a genetically related child with a significantly reduced risk of passing on mtDNA disease.”
Sounds good, right?
Unfortunately, there is more to MRT than meets the eye, and the reality is frightening.
To understand the nightmare unfolding, let’s start from the top.
What is Mitochondrial or MTDNA Disease?
According to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, the origins of mtDNA disease start in the mitochondria of the cell. The mitochondria is the powerhouse structure in nearly every cell of a human body. It provides 90 percent of the energy which the cell needs to operate.
Mitochondrial or mtDNA disease occurs when the mitochondria of cells are unable to properly convert food and oxygen into energy. This causes a mutation in development due to the lack of resources for the body to properly grow. Side effects of the disease can include anything from migraines and fatigue, to strokes, seizures, and liver disease.
The mitochondria also carries its own set of DNA called mtDNA. It just so happens that we inherit our mtDNA solely from our mothers.
How does MRT work?
There are two mitochondrial replacement techniques.
The first technique is Maternal Spindle Transfer, or MST. The Center for Genetics and Society explains that a scientist harvests an egg from the intended mother with mitochondria disease and removes its mutated mitochondria. Then, he harvests another egg from a different woman (a donor without the disease), extracts its healthy mitochondria, and injects it into the egg of the intended mother. Now, the scientists fertilizes the egg with sperm from the intended father (or a donor male) and implants the genetically modified child into the mother’s womb.
Maternal Spindle Transfer (MST)
The second technique is Pronuclear Transfer, or PNT. In this procedure, the scientist follows the same process, but harvests and manipulates living human zygotes instead. Through in vitro fertilization, or IVF, the scientist creates a zygote in a petri dish by fertilizing an egg from the intended mother, who has mitochondrial disease, with sperm from the intended father. Then, the scientist creates a second zygote, using an egg from the healthy woman and the father’s (or donor’s) sperm.
Pronuclear Transfer (PNT)
When these zygotes (tiny humans) are just one day old, the scientist takes the first with the disease and harvests its pronuclei (or nucleus). He discards the rest of it, since it contains most of the mutated mtDNA, and kills the zygote. Next, he removes the pronuclei from the second zygote, throws it away, and inserts the pronuclei from the first zygote inside it. This new, hybrid zygote, constructed under a microscope, is then implanted in the mother.
In both techniques, the reproductive gametes of three parents are manipulated, and a genetically modified human is created. In the second technique, a living human zygote is also killed.
What are the problems with MRT?
Inheritable Genetic Modification
Since MRT genetically modifies the germ cell of the egg or the whole zygote, mitochondrial replacement is considered germline genetic engineering, according to the Center for Genetics and Society. This implies that any or all of the genetic modifications made, including errors, can be inherited by future generations of the children created. The Center states,
“3-person IVF would result in inheritable genetic modification. Altering the human germline is considered to be the most objectionable of genetic technologies and has constituted a bright line not to be crossed.”
With MRT, mistakes cannot be erased.
Furthermore, as the FDA’s committee explains, mitochondrial disease is only inherited from the mother. Therefore, both girls and boys will inherit the genetic modifications, but only girls who are produced by means of MRT will pass them on. Thus, the committee recommends that only the male embryos created from the procedure are transferred to the woman for gestation and allowed to grow.
So what happens to the girls?
The committee makes no comment, although the typical procedure as in IVF is to freeze them, donate them for research, or discard them. In each case, the girls will perish.
Dangers to Women
Women who donate their eggs for the purpose of MRT and other treatments involving IVF techniques are susceptible to many dangerous side-effects. According to the Council for Responsible Genetics, the drugs used in multiple egg extraction are known to trigger numerous health problems, ranging from rashes and dizziness to muscular, bone, and abdominal pain, thyroid enlargement, and liver malfunction.
Furthermore, the drugs used to stimulate egg production have also been known to cause Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS). According to researchers at Mayo Clinic, the fertility drugs injected into a woman’s ovaries can cause them to swell and become very painful. The Council cites that OHSS leads to an increased risk for clotting disorders, kidney damage, and ovarian twisting, along with life-threatening pulmonary conditions.
Such IVF procedures also carry with them an increased risk of miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy. A studyperformed by researchers in the Netherlands on 25,152 women found that women who undergo ovarian stimulation double their risk for ovarian cancer as well.
In addition to the health risks, the Center for Genetics and Society explains how poor women are lured into becoming egg donors with money and then exploited. It states,
“Nuclear genome transfer research in the U.S. and U.K. has already required hundreds of eggs from women. Economically disadvantaged women are often specifically targeted as potential egg donors, while the risk to their bodies is routinely downplayed and follow-up care tends to be minimal. Many are concerned that the great need for eggs in order to carry out these techniques will lead to increased exploitation of egg donors.”
Dangers to Children
Because MRT are so new, scientists don’t know what side-effects they will have on the children created. According to the FDA’s committee, this would be the “first-in-human application of MRT,” and it carries with it great “risks and uncertainties.”
The committee states,
“[The] FDA should require that sponsors design, fund, and commit to long-term monitoring of children born as a result of MRT, with a plan for periodic review of the long-term follow-up data.”
Essentially, all children produced from MRT will be tested and analyzed, like human guinea pigs, for the rest of their lives. Consider for a moment if your parents pledged you as a human test subject for the rest of your life? MRT proposes just this.
Moreover, Paul Knoepfler, MD, stem cell researcher at the University Of California Davis School Of Medicine, wrote to the UK parliament when MRT was under debate and stated,
“The bottom line is that there is an equal or arguably greater chance that it will tragically produce very ill or deceased babies.”
An evaluation of the first technique, Maternal Spindle Transfer, or MST, found there to be a higher risk for abnormal fertilization, causing excess DNA to be transferred, resulting in chromosomal abnormalities.
Furthermore, the second method of MRT, Pronuclear Transfer (PNT), closely resembles cloning. We know from the cloning of animals that there is a high failure rate and a success rate of only 0.1% to 3%. The surviving offspring have been known to experience problems during later development, present abnormal gene expression patterns, and have shortened life spans.
Dr. Maureen L. Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University Of Utah School Of Medicine, who has documented health risks to babies produced through assistive reproductive technologies (ART), also states,
“A growing body of data indicates that children produced in the laboratory are at significantly greater risk for a wide range of medical issues, including neurological disorders, cancer, congenital abnormalities, and imprinting disorders.”
Besides the physical side-effects, the psychological well-being of a child produced with MRT is a serious concern. Not only must the child endure constant monitoring and examination for the rest of his or her life, but he or she also has three distinct parents. The Center for Genetics and Society agrees that the unnatural family structure, along with the possibility that the child may never know all parents, and struggle to understand his or her family/genetic identity, could be psychologically devastating.
Lack of Prior Testing and Studies
According to an article in the Biopolitical Times, a publication of the Center for Genetics and Society, Pronuclear Transfer (PNT) was studied in the 1990s, but only on mice. In the UK, testing was supposed to be done on primates, but it never was. When a team of scientists in Oregon finally tested PNT on macaque monkeys, they found that the procedure was unsuccessful since the embryos produced failed early.
Studying PNT was abandoned, and scientists began to test Maternal Spindle Transfer (MST) on monkeys. The monkeys produced are very young and no tests have been done on further generations.
The fact is, we know very little about MRT’s effect on primates, and nothing at all on how it will effect human beings. Nevertheless, scientists want to proceed with testing on humans.
Dr. Knoepfler told the UK Parliament,
“A scientific reality often passed over in this discussion is that while mitochondria have been studied for decades, the field of studying the mitochondrial genome is in its infancy and is far too new to support a major human intervention that involves the mitochondrial genome. The interactions between the mitochondrial genome and the nuclear genome are also only poorly understood today. It would be rash and premature to proceed with human mitochondrial transfer now given how primitive our knowledge is in this area at this time.”
Lack of Numbers and Necessity
According to research findings published in the world’s most highly cited interdisciplinary science journal, Nature, it is estimated that only one in 5,000 to 10,000 people actually have mitochondrial disease. Furthermore, according to a study published in the Annals of Medicine, only about 15% of these cases are said to be caused by mitochondrial DNA. Of this small sample, only women with very severe mutation levels would qualify as candidates for MRT. According to officials in the HFEA and the Department of Health, only about 10 women per year would be eligible.
As stated by the Center for Genetics and Society, MRT will not save lives. It is not a treatment for people currently affected by the disease, but rather an attempt to create another, genetically modified human being, without the risk for the disease.
Still, even if the two replacement techniques were successful, there is no guarantee that the child produced will be free of mtDNA disease. This is because the disease is most often caused by anomalies in the nuclear DNA of the cell – not the mitochondrial DNA. Spontaneous mutations and age can also lead to the disease. The HFEA, states in their report,
“The panel recommends that any female born following MST or PNT should be advised, when old enough, that she may herself be at risk of having a child with a significant level of mutant mtDNA, putting this child or (if a female) subsequent generations at risk of mitochondrial disease. Thus, we recommend that any female born following MST or PST is advised that, should she wish to have children of her own, that her oocytes or early embryos are analyzed by PGD in order to select for embryos free of abnormal mtDNA.”
The HFEA acknowledges that even though a child is produced from MST or PNT, he or she could still have the disease. MRT does not completely eliminate mitochondrial disease in humans.
Enormous Loss of Life
In using Pronuclear Transfer (PNT), the scientist dismembers and obliterates a fully formed human zygote. It is harvested for its pronuclei and used to modify the second zygote. When it comes down to it, scientists are perfecting one human being by destroying another. (Let the record reflect that scientists are not perfecting but causing different disease).
Furthermore, MRT entails the destruction of more than one human being. According to the HFEA’sscientific review on MRT, it is protocol in the UK to create multiple embryos from the procedure in order that scientists can genetically test each of them and implant the healthiest in the mother’s womb. What happens to these excess human embryos who are deemed to be unacceptable for life? Death is inevitable.
The Evolution of Designer Babies
With MRT, scientists manipulate the genetic make-up of a child to influence how he or she develops. MRT does not only affect the potential of a child to have mitochondrial disease. Along with cognition, aging, cancer, risk for diabetes, and deafness, it also has an impact on the child’s external characteristics.
Stuart Newman, New York Medical College Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy, explains that because mitochondria have a direct impact on the development of the large, essential parts of the human body, even a slight genetic modification would lead to phenotypic variation, or alteration of the external attributes of a person.
MRT is not a medicine, but a fascination with testing the powers of humans to create more perfect beings. It creates designer babies, placing the desires and powers of parents over the child’s health and wellbeing.
If the procedure itself already has the potential to affect the personal characteristics of children, it’s likely that the introduction of this procedure will lead to efforts to further modify the trivial characteristics of the human child as well.
The use of MRT is headed in a different direction, and we already have proof. In the UK, scientists are pushing for MRT to be used as a potential option for women with fertility problems. MRT/genetic link procedures are also being paraded as a future means for same-sex couples to manufacture biologically and genetically related babies.
Opening the door to the scientific engineering of children will lead to further experimentation with the lives of children and their families.
If MRT becomes a reality in the U.S., one potentially significant consequence in particular would be a reduction in the number of babies adopted. Adoption is always a great option for couples who don’t want to pass on disease. However, with the introduction of MRT and other scientific experiments that defy nature, more couples may opt for the artificial procedure instead.
What can we conclude?
MRT involves the invasive manipulation of the human reproductive system, the harvesting of parts from developing children, and the destruction of more than one innocent life to create a hybrid human being.
Furthermore, the consequences and potential side-effects of “three-parent embryos” is devastating and dangerous for the women involved and the children produced. Introducing this as an available option to couples could also trigger a drastic change in child/family life of our society, and lead to further harmful experimentation and scientific manipulation in an effort to create designer children.
As scientists become more talented with test tubes, a fine line has been drawn between practices that improve quality of life and those that tamper with its dignity. MRT takes an unwarranted and dangerous leap across this crucial line.