After tremendous pressure from consumers on Facebook, Twitter and by email, Hershey’s announced that it will remove all ingredients from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in its chocolate.
Hershey’s follows other food giants like Nestle, General Mills, Unilever and Post Foods, which are removing GMOs from their products because the public, wary of the health risks of so-called “Frankenfoods,” is rejecting, loudly and relentlessly, genetically modified food.
Meanwhile, there is a perfect storm brewing that will deliver designer genetically modified children in our own lifetimes. Two fronts are converging to create a potential disaster, and there is little notice from the general public.
The storm begins with the unprecedented decision of the government of the United Kingdom to allow the creation of children with three-genetic parents. These techniques, often called “mitochondrial replacement” or “mitochondrial transfer,” produce germ-line genetic modifications, which means that the genetic manipulations will be passed down from one generation to the next.
Never before has a government sanctioned the direct genetic engineering of its citizens and their descendants. Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a vocal proponent of embryonic stem-cell and cloning research from the University of California Davis, called it a “historic mistake.”
What is mitochondrial replacement (MR), and why would anyone want to create children with the genetic material of three people? MR seeks to “treat” mitochondrial disease. Mitochondria are small, energy-producing organelles in our cells that have their own DNA, called mtDNA. We inherit our mtDNA from our mothers, because the egg contains the mitochondria used by the developing embryo after fertilization. A woman with a mutation in her mtDNA cannot help but pass that on.
MR techniques “replace” the damaged mitochondria. One of the procedures takes the nucleus out of the egg of a woman with mitochondrial disease and places it in the egg of a donor woman with healthy mitochondria. That egg is then fertilized with sperm. The other creates an embryo with egg and sperm first and then removes the nucleus of that one-celled embryo and places it in another embryo that has had its nucleus removed. Both procedures create an embryo that would never be created through natural fertilization. The embryo is genetically modified to have the nuclear DNA of a mother and father and the mtDNA of a donor woman.
Many scientists are concerned about the safety of these techniques. Mitochondrial replacement is actually a misnomer. What is really happening is a “nucleus replacement,” which is very similar to the cloning technique that created Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell.
The cloning of animals has not always produced healthy offspring. In fact, governments and companies have halted their animal-cloning research because of the risks to the gestating mother and abnormalities in the cloned animals. This may be attributed in part to the invasive handling of the egg, removing the nucleus and replacing it with another.
Knoepfler worries that the MR techniques may do more harm than good and warns, “Even if hypothetically this technology might help some people from having mitochondrial disorders (and that’s a big if), the bottom line is that there is an equal or arguably greater chance that it will tragically produce very ill or deceased babies.”
One has to ask: What will happen if MR does go wrong? Dr. Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, asks the important question, “What if you get a person who is impaired from this procedure? Do you discard the experimental outcome?” Of course, the “experimental outcome” is a child. It is likely abortion will be the “fail-safe” for MR babies not developing normally in the womb. Newman concludes there is no ethical way to proceed with MR research in humans.
Despite scientific evidence that MR carries with it great risk for the children produced, the U.K. parliament gave fertility clinics the go-ahead to use these cloning-like techniques. This sets a precedent unlike any other. It not only allows for the genetic modification of many future generations without their consent, it turns children into experiments in genetic engineering.
The Catholic Church teaching is very clear on germ-line genetic-engineering techniques like MR. First, it is unethical to create, manipulate or destroy human life in a laboratory. In addition, Dignitas Personae states, in regards to human germ-line modifications, “… it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny.”
Obviously, the goal is a noble one: to eliminate mitochondrial disease, which can be fatal. The U.K. government weighed the potential benefit to the child against the inherent risk and found, rightly or not, that the potential reward, a mitochondrial disease-free child, outweighed the risk of MR techniques. Many argued that such genetic manipulation of children is justified because their health may be significantly improved.
But it took less than a week after the U.K. decision for the focus to shift from helping the child to helping prospective parents. Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a scientist in Oregon, wants permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to use the three-parent embryo technique as a new fertility treatment. As women age, their fertility declines rapidly. That may be due to aging mitochondria in the cytoplasm of the egg. Taking the nucleus of an aging egg and placing it in a “young” donor egg would give older women the chance to have genetically related children.
Using MR techniques for infertility means the risk is born solely by the child, with no corresponding benefit to his or her health. But Mitalipov does not see the distinction. He told the U.K.’s Independent, “We consider infertility a disease, and you treat the patients as you do for mitochondrial disease. I wouldn’t say one disease is more severe than another.” In other words, the risk to the modified child can be easily dismissed when parents desperately want genetically related offspring.
The slippery slope in reproductive medicine is very real, and the U.K., whether it realizes it or not, just cracked open the door for parents to genetically modify their children according to parental desire.
Unfortunately, the U.K. decision has not been made in a vacuum. Another front is swiftly moving in, ready to collide with the sanction of the three-parent embryo to create a potential storm of epic proportions.
There is a new genetic engineering technique that is revolutionizing biotechnology research. It is called CRISPR. CRISPR allows scientists to accurately alter the DNA in living cells using an enzyme discovered in bacteria.
Scientists have adapted CRISPR for use in plants and animals and can use the technology to precisely edit DNA. CRISPR can silence genes or add new ones into the cells of a living organism. Researchers have utilized CRISPR technology to introduce targeted mutations into yeast, plants, mice, rats, pigs and even primates.
CRISPR holds great promise. Ideally, CRISPR will only be used for gene therapy in humans, repairing a gene in a patient with genetic disease. But CRISPR technology could be used for virtually anything, including the creation of true designer children with DNA specified by parents.
Bioethicists and scientists are warning the public that now is the time to start discussing the possibility of designer babies. Dr. Tony Perry, from the University of Bath, was able to edit the genome of mice at the moment of fertilization with near 100% efficiency using CRISPR. He told BBC News that designer children were no longer H.G. Wells territory.
In fact, a recent article in Scientific American reveals that scientists may already be using editing techniques like CRISPR to modify human embryos. According to unnamed sources, papers on the DNA editing of human embryos are currently being reviewed for publication.
Dr. David King, from Human Genetics Alert, believes, inevitably, there will be technology available that will enable parents to create children designed to their specifications. He notes, “But that does not mean to say it’s inevitably the way we have to go as a society.”
King is correct: We do not have to allow genetic-engineering techniques to run wild. We can control them, using them to treat genetic disease in existing patients while rejecting risky modifications to future generations.
Other scientists agree with this approach. In a letter to Nature, Edward Lanphier, chairman of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, and four co-authors called on scientists to agree to a moratorium on genetically modifying human embryos. They believe promising techniques like CRISPR should be used to treat diseases in patients that need it, but if used for germ-line modifications in embryos, it “makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable.”
Yet a voluntary moratorium may not be enough to stop the impending storm. Everyday Americans need to pressure the FDA and lawmakers to prohibit germ-line genetic engineering of human embryos.
If we do not, we will soon become a society that fears genetically modified food but happily creates genetically modified kids.
Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.
She writes about bioethics on her blog, Mary Meets Dolly.