From a great article in The Telegraph: “The government has been accused of misleading the public by refusing to acknowledge that babies born through a new controversial IVF technique will be ‘genetically modified.’
Last week, the government gave the green light to a new ‘three parent’ fertility technique which will use donor DNA from a ‘second mother’ to fix genetic defects.
Scientists say the process will create ‘GM babies’ because the genetic changes will be passed down to future generations.
But they claim the Department of Health is wary of the backlash from the word ‘GM’ and so has redefined the term in a document so that the technique of mitochondrial DNA transfer does not fall under the category.
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“Of course mitochondrial DNA transfer is genetic modification and this modification is handed down the generations” Lord Robert Winston, Britain’s leading fertility doctor, told The Independent.
“It is totally wrong to compare it with a blood transfusion or a transplant and an honest statement might be more sensible and encourage public trust.”
New regulations to allow mitochondrial DNA transfer will now be put before parliament in the autumn following a three month consultation.
If passed, Britain will become the first European country to legalise the process and more than 100 “three-parent” babies could be born in the UK each year. Under the technique, parents at high risk of having children with severe disabilities such as muscular dystrophy will be offered donor DNA from a “second mother” to fix genetic defects. Mitochondria act as the ‘power packs’ of cells and Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, has likened the process to “changing a faulty battery in a car”.
About one in 6,500 babies are born with a mitochondrial disease each year. The Department of Health claims that the new technique does not amount to genetic modification.
“There is no universally agreed definition of genetic modification in humans. People who have organ transplants, blood donations or even gene therapy are not generally regarded as being genetically modified,” said a spokesman.
“The government has decided to adopt a working definition for the purpose of taking forward those recommendations.”
Many scientists agree with the government’s stance.
Nancy Lee, Senior Policy Advisor at the Wellcome Trust said: “There has never been any suggestion, either by scientists working on mitochondrial replacement or by the Government or regulators, that this technique does not involve altering DNA: the whole point is to replace faulty mitochondrial DNA with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a healthy donor.
“The technique is different from genetic modification techniques which alter DNA in the nucleus of an embryo, where the overwhelming majority of genetic material is held. It is thus important that the Government frames regulations in a way that permits mitochondrial replacement, without allowing modifications to nuclear DNA.”
Sarah Norcross, Director of the Progress Educational Trust said added ‘While it is true that mitochondrial donation techniques modify an egg or embryo, the crucial point is that these techniques move DNA molecules from one place to another while leaving them completely intact. Fears associated with the concept of “genetic modification” are not relevant to mitochondrial donation, because these fears relate to the consequences of intervening in the gene sequence within the molecule. Mitochondrial donation involves no such intervention in the gene sequence, and therefore no associated risk.’
However Dr Ted Morrow, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sussex, said it was wrong to suggest that mitochondrial DNA does doing nothing but power cells.
“My impression is the Government is doing all it can to contain and define these kinds of terms in ways that favour mitochondrial replacement being introduced as an uncontroversial therapy.
“They push the idea that mitochondrial DNA does nothing more than regenerate more mitochondria, which are nothing more than cellular batteries and that mitochondria genes don’t encode traits relevant to personal identity and so on.”
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