Sunday, 1 February 2015

Should You Worry About Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy?

No, no you should not. I was tempted to just leave it at that but I thought some people might like a bit more of an explanation. 

What Are Mitochondria?

Mitochondria are the power plants of cells, they are basically the same across all organisms that have them, which are all cells that have a nucleus (called eukaryotes). It is believed that they were once a tiny micro-organism that formed a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) with eukaryotic cells, possibly allowing complex life to exist! Their function is to provide the chemical energy used by cells, in the form of ATP which is used for nearly every single cellular process (I can't think of any that don't off the top of my head). 

Why Do Some People Need Mitochondrial Replacement?

Mitochondrial diseases are devastating, and until recently they have been incurable. Because mitochondria are passed down from the mother, a child born to a mother carrying the disease is highly likely to inherit the disease and suffer terribly. Mitochondria have their own DNA, which is separate to the rest of the DNA, which is found in the nucleus of cells. This means that you could take the nuclear DNA from the affected mother's egg cell and  use it to replace the nuclear DNA from an unaffected egg cell from another woman and then fertilise it with the man's sperm.

Why Are People Worried?

When you see the headline "3 parent children" it's unsurprising that it generates a big emotional response in some people. There is soon to be a free vote on whether it will be allowed in the UK, and a number of MPs have already expressed concerns, as have many religious church groups. The majority of these groups have legitimate concerns over the safety of the procedure and warn of rushing into a vote. But that is exactly the opposite of what is happening as there have at least 3 safety reviews, lengthy ethics discussions and numerous public consultations. While these concerns are valid, yet misplaced, there are other more troubling concerns that this could lead to a watershed of genetic tinkering and designer babies, leading to all manor of hellish consequences. But these concerns are completely unfounded. This is a single, highly regulated procedure that could entirely eradicate a disease within a generation. Because mitochondria have separate DNA, there would be no alterations to the nuclear DNA, so there would be no way that scientists could create these designer babies in this way. The precautions have been put in place, and this will improve thousands of lives. 


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