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New Babies Have Three Parents
A team of infertility specialists at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science at St. Barnabas Medical Center said they helped produce 15 children with foreign DNA added to that which the children naturally inherited from their mothers and fathers. The news was met with an outcry from ethicists and from other scientists, who accused the team of playing God and of ignoring potentially disastrous side effects in their haste to dabble in genetic engineering.
Think it takes two to create a human being? Think again. New research has literally changed the human species. Welcome to our "brave new world." Scientists in Livingston, N.J., announced recently that genetically modified humans — until now thought to exist only in science-fiction novels — are already among us.
A team of infertility specialists at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science at St. Barnabas Medical Center said they helped produce 15 children with foreign DNA added to that which the children naturally inherited from their mothers and fathers.
The news was met with an outcry from ethicists and from other scientists, who accused the team of playing God and of ignoring potentially disastrous side effects in their haste to dabble in genetic engineering.
The criticism intensified after The Washington Post reported May 18 that in an article published by the St. Barnabas scientists in the March issue of the journal Human Reproduction, the researchers failed to disclose that two of the 17 embryos they created had suffered from Turner's Syndrome. The syndrome is a genetic abnormality in which an entire chromosome is missing.
One of the embryos suffering from the syndrome was deliberately aborted by the scientists, the Post reported. The other was spontaneously miscarried after being implanted in its mother.
Earlier, scientists at the Institute of Science in Society (known as ISIS) in London had charged that the New Jersey research raises the terrifying specter of eugenics. They compared the development with the advent of nuclear weapons, saying it "amounts to changing the gene pool of the human species."
The ISIS scientists also warned that the genetic modifications undertaken on the15 living children "may also give rise inadvertently to individuals who have the extreme diseases associated with mitochondrial heteroplasmy, most frequently expressed beyond puberty, or much later in life."
The rationale for the genetic modifications was that some scientists speculate that female infertility may be caused, in some cases, by defects in the cytoplasm of a woman's egg cells. The New Jersey team transplanted the cytoplasm of donor egg cells into the egg cells of infertile women, and found success in helping the women achieve pregnancy.
The cytoplasm is the material surrounding the cell nucleus, which contains most of the DNA that holds an individual's genetic code. But since cytoplasm also contains small amounts of DNA, in structures called mitochondria, the children conceived through the procedure have three genetic parents — something which is impossible in nature and which could lead to new and harmful genetic mutations.
BRAVE NEW WORLD?
As well, the procedure affects the child's "germline cells," so the genetic modification will be passed from generation to generation.
"It's not just that these babies are at risk — the whole human race is at risk," said Dr. Gene Rudd, associate executive director of the Christian Medical Association in Bristol, Tenn. "We will take the chance of introducing a new disease into the whole genetic makeup of the human race."
While the New Jersey team announced that tests on two 1-year-old children conceived through the procedure show no sign of any genetic disease or disability, critics say that proves nothing about the safety of the procedure.
"They did find some mutations," said Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, a geneticist and biophysicist who is the director of ISIS, "but we don't know whether those mutations matter or not, because a lot of the mitochondrial defects don't appear until after puberty."
In their May 2 published critique of the New Jersey experiments issued May 2, Ho and colleague Joe Cummins, a geneticist at the University of Western Ontario, noted that "mitochondrial DNA mutations have been linked to seizures, strokes, optic atrophy, neuropathy, myopathy, cardiomyopathy, sensorineural hearing loss, diabetes mellitus, and other syndromes .... More often than not, the disease symptoms are delayed until puberty or midlife."
Denise Pinney, assistant director of public relations for St. Barnabas Medical Center, told the Register that the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science is not currently granting interviews about the genetic alterations it has undertaken.
But in a May 18 press release, the medical center defended its actions, stating the cytoplasmic transfer research "complies with stringent medical guidelines and the rigorous restrictions" set by an internal review committee "composed of physicians, religious representatives, patients, ethicists, and others."
The St. Barnabas statement also discussed the two embryos with Turner's Syndrome, noting that the genetic abnormality occurs frequently in all babies conceived artificially. The center acknowledged that one of the embryos had died in a miscarriage and that the second unborn baby, one of a pair of twins, had been aborted deliberately.
Said the statement, "The fetus with Turner's Syndrome … was electively reduced, and a healthy singleton resulted."
There is no law governing such experiments in the United States, and the only regulatory body with competence in the field of "gene splicing," the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, deals only with projects receiving federal funding. The New Jersey experiments were not supported by federal funds, and the scientists involved argue that their experiments did not involve gene splicing anyway.
Ho countered that "in the past even those people who were not supported by federal funds ... let the regulatory body know what they were doing, and consulted." She also argued that there is no essential difference between "gene splicing" and the introduction of mitochondrial DNA through a cytoplasm transplant.
Pinney said that the experiments were carried out according to in-house ethical and scientific guidelines. But Ho believes scientists have a responsibility to society and must not act in secret or without regard for ethical considerations, and that they must be held accountable to the public.
"The first thing [the New Jersey team] did wrong was they never told anyone ... what they were doing, and they knew they were putting in new genes," Ho said. "Secondly, it wasn't based on sound scientific evidence that that was what was wrong with the eggs and that they actually needed to have cytoplasmic transplants. Third, they just never ... notified the public so that the public could have input into whether they want this done."
Such high-handedness is hardly new in the reproductive technology field, according to critics, but the scientists involved in such debatable objectionable projects are seldom, if ever, held to account for their actions. The Christian Medical Association's Rudd told the Register that the various regulatory bodies that exist in the United States "don't come with teeth, [and] right now the scientific community doesn't do a very good job of policing itself."
Said Rudd, "Regulation is necessary for society to live cooperatively without anarchy, and when the pendulum swings too far toward anarchy we finally realize that, and we start getting more regulatory, and I suspect that science is on the verge of enough anarchy that we will move ... towards more regulation with teeth."
Professional "peer pressure" and commonly accepted moral standards no longer hold sway over genetic researchers, Rudd added. These restraints "are not that great in our society anymore because of the relativistic thinking and the tolerance concepts that are so prevalent. I think that when we live with the consequences of that for half a generation [we will] probably realize that it's time to go back a little bit."
Ho said that "scientists should love humanity as much as they love their own science," but that since that is not always the case, further regulation and even criminal sanctions may be necessary to prevent abuses of scientific freedom.
Rudd looks at the matter theologically. "God's design is safe," he said. " We know that there's a design that we can depend upon in taking [the] genetic material that comes from a husband and wife and keeping a family unit intact .... We have to think real hard any time we step away from that basic family unit design."
Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), the 1987 instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on questions regarding respect for human life and the dignity of procreation, states that, "Techniques of fertilization in vitro can open the way to other forms of biological and genetic manipulation of human embryos … These procedures are contrary to the human dignity proper to the embryo, and at the same time they are contrary to the right of every person to be conceived and to be born within marriage and from marriage" (No. 6).
David Curtin. "New Babies Have Three Parents." National Catholic Register. (May, 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register.
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David Curtin writes from Toronto.
Copyright © 2001 National Catholic Register