FDA Explores '3-Person' Embryo Fertilization
Meant to prevent genetic diseases in children, the procedure raises ethical issues
By Dennis Thompson
TUESDAY, Feb. 25, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. Food and Drug Administration hearings opened Tuesday on a controversial fertilization technique that uses the DNA from three people -- two women and one man -- with the goal of preventing inherited genetic diseases.
The technique involves the unfertilized eggs, or "oocytes," from two females. Parts of each egg are combined to weed out inherited genetic disorders contained in one woman's DNA, and the resulting healthy egg is then fertilized using a male's sperm.
The FDA's two-day hearing is meant to provide a forum for discussing how this technique might be tested in human clinical trials.
But the discussion is expected to veer into the ethics of manipulating human genetics to produce "perfect" babies.
"The potential benefits are huge, but the potential harms are also huge," said Dr. Michelle Huckaby Lewis, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the Genetics and Public Policy Center, in Washington, D.C.
The procedure could have unintended health consequences both for newborns and for future generations, as the genetic tinkering reverberates through time, Lewis said.
In addition, she said, the technique raises troubling questions of parental rights and family structure.
"When you use a technology in a new way like this, it really challenges our notions of what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a family," Lewis said.
The hearing was prompted by the work of Shoukhrat Mitalipov, an associate scientist at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
Mitalipov has used the fertilization technique to produce five healthy monkeys, and is seeking FDA approval to begin human trials involving women who carry defective genes that could pass on severe illnesses to their children.
He is on hand at the hearing to explain the process, which he described Monday to the Associated Press as "gene correction" rather than "gene modification."
"We want to replace these mutated genes, which by nature have become pathogenic to humans," Mitalipov told the AP. "We're reversing them back to normal, so I don't understand why you would be opposing that."
The procedure is aimed at preventing illness caused by defective DNA in a mother's mitochondria, the tiny structures that produce energy to power individual cells.
During reproduction, an embryo inherits nearly all the maternal mitochondria present in the egg. That means any genetic mutations present in the mitochondria will be passed on from mother to child, according to the OHSU website.
About one in every 5,000 American children inherits genetic illnesses from their mother's mitochondrial DNA. These diseases can lead to health problems as far-ranging as blindness, organ failure, epilepsy, cancer and diabetes, the OHSU noted.
The new technique seeks to avoid this by using an egg from a healthy female donor that contains undamaged mitochondria. The nucleus DNA of the prospective mother is implanted into the donated egg, replacing the nucleus DNA of the donor.