Did geneticists really breach an ethical taboo? A comment by Rob Cole

[On Octobe 24, 2012 Rob Stein blogged this ‘Geneticists Breach Ethical Taboo by Changing Genes Across Generations‘ on npr.org. The article begins:

Geneticist reported Wednesday that they had crossed a threshold long considered off-limits: They have made changes in human DNA that can be passed down from one generation to the next.

The article goes on to link this technology to the possibility of creating a super-race of humans and other such extreme scenarios before then claiming that we might just have to get used to the idea of some people having three parents in the future. The following are Rob Cole’s thoughts on the article]

Firstly, here is a better account of the situation.

It seems to me that this is just another form of prenatal selection, with the added complication of ‘three parents’ (really just two, one just providing mitochondrial DNA- DNA which is almost identical between individuals unless it goes wrong, such as in these diseases). Parenthood is incredibly variable anyway- gamete donors and surrogacy come to mind, where three ‘parents’ exist (or four in the potential case of a homosexual couple), as does adoption and co-parenting etc etc. The fact that one is genetically linked in a way that is effectively ‘genetically common’ with every single one us doesn’t really create a ‘new parent’, I would argue.

On reading back through this argument I suppose you would argue the same for all sorts of genetic diseases. The distinction I am making is mitDNA is not variable in the same way human DNA is; it is highly conserved. It therefore doesn’t effectively create ‘a new parent’.

Also, this ‘three parenting’ idea will not occur in other diseases, those diseases located on the nuclear or ‘human’ chromosomes. In these cases if you wanted to ‘correct’ a ‘faulty gene’ you would just synthesise a piece of DNA, not use another existing person’s.
and… this new technology doesn’t trouble the existing law which recognises the pregnant mother as the legal mother at birth.

Summary: let mitDNA therapy happen!

P. S. The title of the initial article is incredibly frustrating. ‘ethical taboo of changing genes across generations’? Firstly, this is someone else’s ‘natural’ mitDNA anyway. Secondly, any IVF procedure arguably has similar ‘risks’, though lower in magnitude. Thirdly, any act of ‘selection’ changes genes across generations (as do many things). Classic. Journalism.

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