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Inside every cell in the human body are mitochondria, tiny molecular machines which ‘power’ the cell by providing chemical energy. When these mitochondria don’t work properly, the consequences can be fatal.

Treating mitochondrial diseases has historically been challenging, since they are a diverse family of diseases with a wide spectrum of symptoms.  Mitochondrial disorders often target nerve tissue, and the results range from debilitating (MERRF syndrome) to fatal in the first few years of life (Leigh’s disease).

Recently, a powerful but controversial therapy has emerged to prevent these diseases, and it just became legal in the UK. Here’s the story of this treatment, which will eventually see babies being born with the genetic material from three parents.

The Procedure

Of the components of the cell, mitochondria are unique in an important way — mitochondria are actually the remnants of a very old species of microbe, which evolved a symbiotic relationship with animal cells before being fully integrated in our life cycle.  Mitochondria live inside our cells but have their own organelles, their own DNA, and their own cell wall.  This makes it very difficult to fix them when they have problems.

The idea behind the new therapy is very simple: if the mother has a disease carried in the mitochondrial DNA, you can remove the defective mitochondria and replace them with new, healthy ones from a donor.  The mitochondrial transfer procedure itself is revolutionary, and can be performed in two ways, depending upon the state of fertilization.

The first technique is done prior to the fertilization of the egg. This procedure is known as Maternal Spindle Transfer, and it works by taking an unhealthy egg with defective mitochondria, and removing the nucleus, which contains the majority of the cell’s DNA, and acts as the command center of the cell. This is implanted into a donor egg which lacks the defective mitochondria, and has had its own nucleus removed.  The hybrid cell can then be fertilized, and will mature normally.

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mitochondria-cell

The second is done after the egg has been fertilized, and is called pronuclear transfer. Here, the nucleus from the fertilized, but unhealthy, egg is removed and transplanted into a healthy egg. This is then transplanted back in to the biological mother to gestate.

Both procedures eliminate the risk of a child being born with mitochondrial disorders. With 1 in 200 children being born with some form of mitochondrial disorder, and 1 in 6,500 having a disease that will eventually result in early death, the benefits of this are overwhelmingly obvious. So, why the controversy?

The Controversy

This legislation, which passed the first time around, has attracting criticism from the usual suspects in reproductive rights conversations, namely the religious right and social conservatives in general.

The Catholic Church, known for their strong stance when it comes to sexual and biological ethics, decried the ‘Three-Parent Baby’ law as one which trivializes life, with Bishop John Sherridon saying that it makes ‘human life disposable[…]’

“Whilst the Church recognizes the suffering that mitochondrial diseases bring and hopes that alternative methods of treatment can be found, it remains opposed on principle to these procedures where the destruction of human embryos is part of the process.”

Speaking to the Catholic Herald, he continued:

“The human embryo is a new human life with potential; it should be respected and protected from the moment of conception and not used as disposable material.”

The Anglican Church – which is the official state church of the United Kingdom, and is generally less hardline than the Catholic Church when it comes to reproductive and biological issues – was relatively reserved, although in the days leading up to the vote, they made an official statement raising concerns about the safety aspects of the procedure.

“The Archbishops Council, which monitors this issue, does not feel that there has been sufficient scientific study or informed consultation into the ethics, safety and efficacy of mitochondria transfer. Without a clearer picture of the role mitochondria play in the transfer of hereditary characteristics, the Church does not feel it would be responsible to change the law at this time.”

This said, it’s neither fair nor accurate to characterize all concern about the procedure as coming from religious quarters. Social conservatives have also raised concerns about mitochondria transfer procedures. The most notable critic of the procedure is Conservative backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who in an interview on The Today Program on BBC Radio 4 said:

“At the moment there is a very clear boundary that babies cannot be genetically altered and once you’ve decided that they can, even for a small number of genes, you have done something very profound and then it’s merely a matter of degree as to what you do next.”

Rees-Mogg (with his usual subtlety) then went on to tweet:

Seemingly, the biggest criticisms of the Three-Parent Baby procedure are very similar to the criticisms leveled against transhumanism How Technology May Be Influencing Human Evolution How Technology May Be Influencing Human Evolution There's not a single aspect of the human experience that hasn't been touched by technology, including our very bodies. Read More . Namely, that science is transforming what it means to be a person, and the consequences are incredibly hard to predict.

Cutting Through The Noise

Mitochondrial replacement therapies are inherently divisive, especially given the sensitive matter of genetics and parentage are considered. But what are the facts?

Well, let’s start off by saying that the term ‘three parent baby’ which has been rapturously adopted by the British press is a bit of a misnomer. Although the egg does indeed come from a third party donor, and some genetic material from that donor is passed on, the reality is that only a tiny portion of genetic material will be passed on to the baby. In total, less than 0.2% of genetic material will be passed on.

mitochondria-baby

Another concern (and another massive can of worms) is that this procedure could eventually pave the way for ‘designer babies’, in which humans seize genetic control of their own development, to engineer smarter, stronger, and healthier children — a scenario that was explored in frightening detail in the film GATTACA.

The genetics required to modify nearly all of a person’s characteristics are stored in the cell’s nucleus, which is not changed by the mitochondria transfer procedure. Furthermore, at the time of writing, it is illegal to modify the nucleus of a human baby in the United Kingdom, and in a great many other countries. Accusing this therapy of leading inevitably to designer babies is simply a non sequitur.

It’s also worth noting that, in the grand scheme of things, a mitochondrial transfer isn’t the most unorthodox transplant we’ve ever really seen. Researchers have already worked out how to transplant a genetically modified pig heart Researchers Create a Pig Heart That Can Survive in Primates Researchers Create a Pig Heart That Can Survive in Primates Last week, researchers announced that they'd implanted the heart of a transgenic pig into a baboon, and kept it alive for a year. Here's why you should care. Read More into a primate, and we’re already examining the possibility of replacing human organs and bones with ones that came from a 3D printer How 3D Printing Humans Might Be Possible Some Day How 3D Printing Humans Might Be Possible Some Day How does bioprinting work? What can be printed? And will be ever be able to print a full human being? Read More . Some people have even voluntarily embedded magnets and electronic circuits Biohacking: The Creepy but Exciting Trend in Body Modification Biohacking: The Creepy but Exciting Trend in Body Modification "Sorry about the mess," says Steve Haworth, as we walk down the stairs to the surgical theater, where he merges consumer technology and the human body to produce uniquely functional body modifications. Read More into their body.  If conservatives can’t cope with a mitochondrial transplant, they’re not going to like the next few decades at all.

A Great Leap Forwards

Each year in the UK, 150 babies are born with severe, life-limiting (or life ending) mitochondrial diseases.  Many more go on to develop less fatal mitochondrial diseases, which produce an array of horrifying symptoms. This treatment could save all of those people from needless suffering and death.  Are we venturing into unknown territory? I think so. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

So where you do you stand?  Do you know anyone who suffers from a mitochondrial disorder?  Do you think this kind of therapy should be legal? Let us know in the comments.  

Photo Credit: Laughing Baby (SvetlanaFedoseyeva – Shutterstock), artificial insemination (Koya979 – Shutterstock), Digital illustration of Mitochondria in colour background (RAJ CREATIONZS – Shutterstock) 

  1. Victoria Bilogan
    August 2, 2015 at 11:55 am

    my answer is Yes to legalisation and we shpild stop arbitary people to make decisions about our lives based on their religious narratives

  2. navin rai
    February 9, 2015 at 4:52 am

    its good to defend and value the importance of human identity. But its difficult to take a standpoint as the defender of the true human identity as who and how its be known whether what constitutes it? And it should not be argued by anyone on such tech as this which saves human life without interfering their being. And the matter of physical and intellectual alterations cant rule out the need of wellbeing or to survive unless the preservation of the what-defines-it is in question. ????

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 9, 2015 at 9:27 am

      Interesting thoughts.

      Personally, I don't think that as a society, we need a 'defender of human identity'. Frankly, we've been doing well without one for the past few millennia. Why do we need one now? With that said, if we were to have one, I would prefer that said person was a scientist, or a bioethicist, or a philosopher. I think we should base our bioethical thinking on secular ethics, not the ethics of, say, the Catholic or Anglican churches.

      With respect to your second point, I think the question becomes 'at what cost'? As a society, are we prepared to take brave steps when it comes to changing the human body or human experience in order to save lives? The UK just said it is, and I think that's a good thing.

    • Navin rai
      February 20, 2015 at 7:59 am

      I don't think we did it without defending our identity in the past! But human has always tried to define and defend it. We had defenders in the forms of as specific and noticiable as leaders and thinkers to as common and disguising as individual thoughts, beliefs or social acceptances in the form of laws or lifestyle. And even if we need it not till now doesn't mean we need it not now too, as now when we've reached and are most capable than ever equipped with the tools and knowledge to ask and shake the fundamental questions of life and universes. I think it's the most time when we need to find the definition of our identity in order to move further into our future of revolutionized Utopia that our advancements are making us dream of ever more than before. But hence Utopia is for us we can't be sure where we are heading unless we know what our definition is telling us of what should the Utopia be like in lack of which we may be wrong and our accomplishments as this 'genetic cure' might only prove a brick that should have been not laid in the masoning.

      And I don't think secular ethics is in any privileged stand to lisence the human actions while denying the Church ethics which in turn is representing the divine ethics. But as I see secular ethics is in a dead-end where either it should submit to the derivation of it through divine or cancel any concept of ethics in the sense that it is utilising now. Though I agree the need to be secular when such 'Churchial' but not divine ethics interfere to the point of orthodox tyranny neglecting the highest rule which states in favour of mercy and love.

      Yeah the cost may be greater than the need of bravery!

  3. Guy
    February 8, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    You never heard of someone suing someone else, even though it was completely unreasonable by most peoples' standards?

    Just like egg and sperm donors, there's nothing stopping three people who know each other from deciding to do this. Sure, most procedures will use anonymous donors, but not all of them. They may even have nice legal agreements about the whole deal. That still doesn't prevent a person from filing a law suit.

    The likelihood is small, but the damages can be huge so it should be a part of the parents' decision process.

  4. Guy
    February 8, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    I wonder if there might arise a scenario where the third person involved claims rights of parenthood? That's happened with egg and sperm donors.

    Some places have laws to help sort that out, yet none of them prevent the family from being dragged into court and going through pain, stress, and huge amounts of money. Things like that often tear a family apart.

    Maybe UK law takes care of that. I found this article, Parenthood after donor conception: egg donors and egg providers, from a U.K. law firm. It still doesn't clear everything up nicely. I guess time will tell.

    • Matthew Hughes
      February 8, 2015 at 6:24 pm

      I doubt a third-party egg donor could reasonably claim parenthood from this procedure. After all, only 0.2% of the child's genetic makeup would come from that third party.

      I'd also like to think that the whole donor-recipient process would be anonymized, so that this issue couldn't crop up.

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