DNA experiment yields great promise and high ethical risks

PORTLAND, Ore. — Future generations could be stripped of mutations like hereditary blindness or maternal diabetes, after a breakthrough study … Continued

PORTLAND, Ore. — Future generations could be stripped of mutations like hereditary blindness or maternal diabetes, after a breakthrough study at Oregon Health & Science University.

But the new technique is also one short step from genetic design of future generations, said Marcy Darnovksy of the California-based Center for Genetics and Society. “These powerful new technologies have a whole bunch of wonderful and appropriate uses — and a number of ways they can be misused.”

The researchers, led by OHSU biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov, modified unfertilized eggs for the first time, a technique that offers great promise as well as ethical pitfalls. Such research is banned in many countries.

Three years ago, the Russian-born Mitalipov made headlines with experiments that created monkeys with genetic material from three parents. Now, his team has done it with human cells, setting the stage for possible experiments with humans.

The procedure dealt with what’s called mitochondrial DNA, the small part of the cell that turns food into energy. Mitochondrial disorders can lead to neuropathy (a type of dementia) and nervous system disorders such as Leigh disease.

In a study published Wednesday (Oct. 24) in the journal Nature, the OHSU team described successfully transferring DNA from donor cells into other donor cells, fertilizing the eggs to create 13 tiny early embryos of roughly 100 cells each. These pre-embryos, called blastocysts, were converted to embryonic stem cells for future research.

Key to the technique: replacing the defective mitochondrial DNA with healthy genetic material from the egg of a second woman.

Four monkeys produced this way from Mitalipov’s 2009 experiment remain healthy, showing the process is “not only effective but also has no side effects,” he said.

Mitalipov stresses that mitochondrial DNA is different from the nucleus DNA that determines physical traits like eye and hair color, or even intelligence and personality. He notes an ethics commission in the United Kingdom has pronounced this kind of research ethical, and the OHSU research was sanctioned by an internal review board.

The research is prohibited in some other countries, but permitted in the U.S, although the government doesn’t allow federal funding of it. Mitalipov was not allowed to use his federally funded laboratory in Hillsboro, Ore., instead doing the work in a duplicate lab set up in OHSU’s South Waterfront complex in Portland.

OHSU contributed more than $500,000 toward the research, and $150,000 came from the LeDucq Foundation in France.

Only a few groups pursue this research, including one in New York and another in the United Kingdom, where the country is mulling over legalizing this type of technique.

“I think we are the most advanced. Hopefully this will make us leaders in human embryo and stem cell research in the United States and the world,” Mitalipov said Wednesday.

The Food and Drug Administration seems open to a small clinical trial transplanting modified embryos into women to study their offspring, meaning it could be offered in a few years in clinics, he added. But he thinks the United Kingdom will fund trials sooner than in the U.S., due to heightened interest there.

Critics, however, say the OHSU technique needs rigorous and lengthy examination, and should provoke more countries to discuss what sorts of research should be pursued.

Darnovksy says that replacing mitochondrial DNA is not that far from replacing DNA in the cell’s nucleus — leading to the highly controversial possibility of “designer babies.” She says four healthy monkeys does not rule out nuances that may only emerge in future generations.

“It is a biologically extreme procedure. You’re taking apart an egg and putting it back together,” she said. “In the real world, there are slippery slopes, and this one is really slippery with a lot of grease on it. We need brakes to slow ourselves down.”

Jonathan Kimmelman, an assistant professor of biomedical ethics at McGill University in Montreal, says the battle lines on genetic engineering have relaxed in recent years. But he says there’s evidence that mitochondrial DNA may play a role in brain function as well as metabolism.

He agreed that if mitochondrial gene therapy is approved, it will be hard to say no to the more controversial cousin of modifying nucleus DNA.

“There’s no reason why we should say yes to one and no to the other,” he said.

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    The remarks of the critics suggest that scientist have the knowledge to tweak DNA but lack the knowledge to understand the long term implications. Strange that the scientific community should plow forward so recklessly (even ignoring the wise warnings of some of their own colleagues). Still, given the scientific naturalistic worldview of the larger scientific community, I find the banning of such procedures laughable. Designer babies is the next logical step for those who believe in evolution.

    As a theist, I suspect that humanity is about to step into a trap of our own making, with our eyes wide open.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Isn’t if funny how the theist pray and pray and pray to the big guy in the sky for cures to diseases. Then when science actually is working on such a cure they are the first one’s to object! It is TOTAL insanity at it purest.

  • elpea123

    Scientists could be doing all kinds of wonderful things with their time and resources.

    But, this embryonic stuff is really getting the push. And that is because there is cash

    in it.

    So, what if these guys murder 13 tiny humans to mess around with some DNA switching?

    The end result could be 13 other tiny humans that won’t have a certain birth defect.

    BUT those humans will need to live in a world that ignores global warming, pollution,

    nuclear poisoning—you name it

    all the stuff that scientists ARE NOT working on because they are too busy messing with

    Pandora’s box for cash.

    I suggest that we get off this train of trying to be God and start doing something that is

    really worth while.

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

987_00
An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.