Is it as sci-fi as it sounds?
If you could prevent your future child from having a mitochondrial disease—the kind that could mean he or she could face heart and liver disease, respiratory problems, blindness, or muscular dystrophy down the road—would you?
That's the basis behind mitochondrial manipulation, or the controversial "three-parent" baby technique, a procedure in which the mother's nuclear genetic material is taken from her egg or embryo and placed into a donor egg or embryo that's had its nuclear DNA removed. Soon, this procedure may be available to mothers in the United Kingdom, thanks to lawmakers voting this week in favor of a law that would allow it.
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The procedure hasn't been given the green light quite yet. Before the U.K. would become the first country to allow this technique, additional lawmakers still have to cast their votes in the U.K.'s upper house, the House of Lords.
"The procedure has already been performed experimentally, but is not yet part of routine clinical practice," says Alan B. Copperman, M.D., director of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at The Mount Sinai Hospital and medical director of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York. "If proven safe and effective, it's likely that other countries, including the U.S., will quickly follow the U.K. and adopt similar legislature and technology."
So for those of us who are still trying to catch up on what mitochondria even is, here's a guide to help you keep up with the news:
Mitochondria and Mitochondrial Disease
Mitochondria are that stuff you learned about way back in biology class—they generate the energy our cells use to power our bodies. Mitochondria are separate from the cell's nucleus, which houses 99.9 percent of your DNA, including the DNA that determines personality and appearance, according to the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University. When your mitochondria don't power your body full-force, your organs pay the price. People with mitochondrial disease face symptoms that include loss of motion, weakness, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and more. Every year, 1,000 to 4,000 children in the United States are born with a mitochondrial disease, per the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.
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How Three-Person DNA IVF Works
Mitochondrial diseases are passed from mother to child, so when DNA from a donor is used to replace defective DNA, it prevents mutations from being passed on to offspring, explains Copperman. The process is complicated, but the gist is that the mom's nuclear DNA (the stuff that determines hair color, eye color, etc.) is inserted into an egg with healthy mitochondria (that's had its nuclear DNA removed) either pre- or post-fertilization with the father's sperm and is then implanted into the mother's uterus the same way it would be in IVF.
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According to the Wellcome Trust, "Scientists estimate that our DNA is made up of about 30,000 genes. In mitochondrial donation, almost all of the child’s genes will come from its parents; the mitochondrial donor will only contribute 37 genes (0.1 percent of total DNA), which enable the mitochondria to produce energy." Translation: 99.9 percent of the baby's DNA would come from its parents; a teeny, tiny sprinkle would come from a donor.
What All of This Means
The BBC reported that debate of the law by U.K. lawmakers included questions of the procedure's safety and societal implications since all of this is super new. Lawmakers also discussed whether this all counts as "genetic modification."
But if this sounds like a slippery slope toward designer babies, hold up a second: With this method, parents can't choose what color their child's eyes will be or shape his personality so he becomes a straight-A student. They can simply try to grow a healthy baby.
Just like every other IVF treatment, this one has drawbacks: "There is still a chance that some of the defective DNA will remain in the cell and be transmitted to the child," says Copperman. It's not a perfect science yet. "It's an exciting advance when science is used to help cure or prevent disease. It's even possible that this technology can someday be used to help rejuvenate aging eggs and enhance fertility for infertile couples. But much testing needs to first be performed to prove both the safety and efficacy of this new technology."
Fascinating stuff, right? To learn more about three-parent babies and the past, present, and future of baby-making, check back on WomensHealthMag.com soon! And to find out even more about the future of fertility science and "designer babies," pick up a copy of the March issue of Women's Health, on newsstands February 10.
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