Debate: Prohibit genetically engineered babies? Yes or No.

March 29, 2013Carole 2 Comments »

If you like to think (and perhaps debate) about ethical issues in assisted reproduction, you’ll  want to listen to this video debate. It’s put on by a foundation called Intelligence Quotient Squared (IQ2) in front of a live audience which votes before and after the debate on the question at hand. The question is “Should society prohibit genetically engineered babies?”

The debate for me is somewhat premature, in the sense that genetic engineering of babies to insert specific genes is not currently possible (with one possible exception– depending on your definition of engineering) and is not offered clinically. There is some debate  and confusion about the definition of ” genetic engineering”. Currently, through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), we can identify embryos with genetic problems and decide not to transfer them. PGD or PGS to screen for healthy embryos is fundamentally different than inserting actual genes but some people are fundamentally uncomfortable with diagnosis and then discard of non-transferred embryos and do consider this a form of genetic engineering.

The closest thing to genetic engineering that has been performed in the ART clinic – in my opinion- are procedures in which successful pregnancies were produced by recovering egg cytoplasm from a  younger women and injecting this cytoplasm into the older patient’s egg. Thus the patient’s genome is  exposed to the benefits of younger more energetic mitochondria. This technique, although effective,  was shut down by the FDA in the US because it created babies with technically three genetic parents, even though the mitochondrial contribution is a miniscule part of the genome (less than 2% of the DNA and accounts for less than 1% of expressed genes).

Ovascience has developed a procedure to  inject mitochondria harvested (and amplified) from a patient’s own egg stem cells to “rejuvenate” the patient’s own egg to improve the chance of pregnancy, thus bypassing the “three parents” genetic issue. I believe this produce, called Augment, is in the clinical trial stage. This protocol can also be used to treat mitochondrial disease.

Leigh’s disease is one example of a dread mitochondrial disease. Most individuals with this disease don’t live past childhood and frequently spend many years in a near vegetative state. It is a truly horrible disease without a cure. Mitochondria are passed on through the mother’s egg. If a mother has a sufficient percentage of abnormal or non-functioning mitochondria, these passed on to her children can cause the condition in her children.  If these defective mitochondrial genes could be replaced with normal mitochondria, these women could have normal, healthy children.  Germ line therapy  for mitochondrial disease is in the research stage currently. It is not clear when these treatments might be clinically available or routine.

Anyway, the debate is very interesting and asks the following questions and many others not listed:

  • What is genetic engineering?
  • Where is the line between acceptable and non-acceptable parental interventions to give children a better life?
  • Do we have a right to improve our children or just prevent disease?
  • Prohibition of new technology vs. transparent oversight of new technology?
  • Would government funding, instead of private or commercial funding, of new ART procedures ensure better oversight and transparency?
  • Do we have a right to do things to people (not yet born children) who have no ability to give informed consent?

Enjoy listening to this video, then debate here in the comments or elsewhere with your friends.  Have a great weekend.


© 2013, Carole. All rights reserved.

2 Responses to this entry

  • Alzayed Says:

    Thanks, actually I want to ask you about testicular stem cells transplantation is it true or hoax ?

  • Carole Says:

    Dear Alzayed,
    It is not a hoax and has been performed successfully in research experiments in mice. It is not yet an option for male patients. This article describes the state of research and hurdles to overcome before clinical treatments are possible. Thanks for your question. Carole

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