This week’s article is Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s Mitochondrial Manipulations, which was published by the New York Times on March 17. This type of genetic engineering has the potential to become very politicized, so I will do my best to leave my own opinions out of this post and instead use today to provide a scientific, unemotional basis towards helping you form your own opinion about this matter.
The basis for studying nuclear transfer is leading towards the potential to allow mothers who are carrying genetic defects in their mitochondria to have children that are not afflicted with mitochondrial disease. Mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of all cells in our bodies; they provide the energy that cells need to survive and perform their function. When mitochondria are not able to do this, patients are afflicted with what is broadly known as mitochondrial disease. This family of diseases can have many presentations, but may include symptoms such as muscle weakness, feeding disorders, multi-system organ failure, and premature death. There currently is no cure for mitochondrial disease, only treatments for the symptoms it causes.
The technology that Dr. Mitalipov is investigating is one step further than egg donation, which is a common and legal practice in the United States. His research involves taking the nucleus out of an egg from a mother with a mitochondrial defect, and placing it into a donor egg from a healthy donor that has had its nucleus removed. This creates an egg in which all of the organelles are normal, and the genomic DNA of the egg is from the woman who will raise the child. However, the child would have genetic material from three individuals (the mother, the father, and the egg/mitochondrial donor), because mitochondria have their own DNA. This has created many barriers towards approval of the technology because of perceived ethical and legal issues, which are discussed in the article.
The nuclear transfer has been performed in monkeys (which have been born) and in human eggs (which have not developed further due to FDA regulations). Currently, it has not been approved for clinical trials or any further use in the United States. However, I believe that in the coming years it will become a very hot political issue. I only hope that those involved in evaluating the science and making decisions will have all of the facts on their side- and that the public, who will be subjected to the political ideals surrounding the technology, will as well.