Just sometimes, I feel very proud to be British, which isn’t very British I know. Today is one of those days because MPs have voted to allow scientists and doctors to create so called “three parent babies”.
As a scientist myself I find this fascinating; the great challenge to better understand our biology and use this knowledge to prevent horrible diseases. But as a mother of two small children, having read the stories of some of those parents who have lost children to these diseases, I also see the hope and heartbreaking urgency in today’s news.
There has been a lot in the media about this today but I’ve not yet seen much in the parent blogging world, so I thought I would chip in. There have been a few misleading stories and I worry that some people may be concerned about what is actually being done so I hope this will help a few people out and not read too much like a school biology class!
The Science bit:
Firstly, the whole “three parents” thing isn’t really accurate. The third person is more like an organ donor than a parent, only no one has to die and the benefit is felt for generations. In fact, what they are donating, their mitochondria, are part of a group of tiny structures in all our cells known as organelles. Each organelle has a specific form and function within the cell, just like the organs in a body. The mitochondria are the cells’ power stations and so they are especially important in parts of the body that use a lot of energy, such as the heart and brain. But just like organs, the mitochondria don’t always work properly.
Mitochondria are curious little things. Most of your body is built using blueprints cobbled together from the DNA of both your mother and father. But mitochondria contain their own, separate little bit of DNA and come only from mum. Your mother’s mitochondria, in the egg cell that would become you, were the sole ancestors of those that now power every cell in your body. They pass from mother to child, generation after generation, almost unchanged. But when there is a fault, this too is passed down and the results, in those power hungry organs like the heart and brain can be catastrophic. I read today about a mother who lost seven children to mitochondrial disease. Seven. I can’t even begin to imagine that.
Today’s decision in parliament should allow doctors to try a new form of IVF treatment, where they replace the faulty mitochondria in the mother’s egg cell with healthy ones from a donor. If it works, the baby will be free of mitochondrial disease and so will any children they go on to have. The baby and all those future generations will also carry around the tiny chunks of donor mitochondrial DNA. Inherited genetic material from someone who is neither their mother or their father and this is what some people have objected to.
The Arguments Against.
As far as I can tell the arguments against trying this technique fall into two categories. Firstly there is the “Slippery Slope” fear that this is the first step towards genetically engineered designer babies. I have very little time for this argument in this particular case. The genetic material, the DNA, that is being donated won’t make the baby smarter or taller. It won’t give them blond hair or help them win an Olympic medal. It will just stop them dying horribly and needlessly. The techniques involved aren’t even the same as those that would be needed to make a truly designer baby.
The second concern is that we don’t yet know if this is entirely safe for the babies. A lot of work has already been done and it seems very promising but nothing in life is completely safe and we can’t yet be sure there won’t be unforeseen problems. The thing is, the only way we can be sure is to try it. There comes a point in all medical advances where we have to summon our courage and have a go. There was once a first heart transplant, a first IVF baby, without them the thousands who have followed could never have benefited. The idea of taking risks with an unborn child, of them being part of an experiment, feels repellent, but the alternative is to step back and do nothing while those babies continue to be born into suffering, and shrug our shoulders as couples are forced into childlessness. To me, if we have a hope of changing things for the better, then, on balance it would be more repellent not to even try.
As a scientist and a mum I am delighted that MPs voted in favour of this today. As someone who has deep concerns about much of what our politicians do, I’m also a bit relieved. The church argued against this decision (although it’s clear this wasn’t the view of everyone involved) as did some MPs from most political parties and I can see how the idea may seem unnatural and disturbing if you don’t understand it fully. But most MPs did manage to grasp either enough of the science, or of compassion for the families involved to vote yes. After some of what has gone on in this parliament, especially with our health service, I take some comfort from that.
So well done, for once, to the MPs and even more so to the parents who have campaigned and the scientists an doctors who have got us this far. Our soggy little island punches way above it’s weight when it comes to science. We’ve made huge contributions to understanding life and to improving it. This next step is brave and not entirely without risk but I think we should be proud of taking it and of the hope it can give to families all over the world.