Medical Research

Can Genetic Engineering of DNA Prevent Muscular Dystrophy?

If there were a procedure to prevent at-risk parents from passing on a disorder like muscular dystrophy to their children using the DNA of three people at fertilization, would the world embrace it?

Of course, science never ceases to amaze. Since the 1970s there have been legal and social wars questioning the use of stem cells to treat illnesses, genetic engineering, and human cloning. If we can grow a new limb from an injury victim’s own DNA to replace one lost in an accident, is that something we are morally obligated to do, or is it tantamount to “playing God,” a slippery slope that leads to the kind of nightmarish scenarios we see in post-apocalyptic science fiction novels?

Now, Great Britain’s fertility regulator is taking a step towards support of genetic engineering, potentially allowing doctors to create children in labs, combining DNA from three different people. The government is moving forward to legalize the procedure as soon as April of next year.

This procedure goes far beyond mere scientific curiosity. Called mitochondrial transfer, the procedure can help to wipe out diseases such as muscular dystrophy, which are caused by DNA that is passed from mother to child. In mitochondrial transfer, faulty genetic material can be replaced with healthy material drawn from the healthy DNA of a donor woman.

Britain’s health department held a public consultation for three months to gauge the peoples’ response to the idea, and drew nearly 2,000 responses. New regulations based on these responses have been drafted, and Parliament will debate the issue in the fall. If things move forward as planned, the draft could become law by April next year.

Of course, this is far from a done deal. An approval process has to be created by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which is Britain’s fertility watchdog firm, and the results of scientific testing regarding safety have yet to be properly vetted. Once the HFEA is satisfied, there are two other government committees that have to sign off on the deal before Parliament can begin debates.

Doug Turnbull, who developed the procedure, is hopeful that things will progress as planned. “I’m happy that this is moving forward,” he says. “The important thing now is that it gets into Parliament this session. My fear is that if this is delayed, we are into a new government and we cannot know the shape or support of that government, and it could be delayed for a long time. Patients in the UK would miss out.”

Controversy arises with the procedure because the third-party genetic material becomes a permanent part of the DNA chain, to be passed down generation after generation. While there’s no evidence of danger in the procedure at the outset, it’s impossible this early in the game to determine the presence of unknown side effects.

Turnbull believes, however, that the benefits outweigh the risks. “My patients are making choices all the time. Some don’t want to have more children because of the risk. Others have egg donation. There is going to be a risk with any sort of new technique, but everything that’s been done so far suggests the risks will be less than with passing these diseases on.”

Robert Meadowcroft of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign believes that the new procedure is essential as a step towards wiping out this disease. “It is now up to the government to ensure that these regulations are considered and approved by Parliament before the next general election in May 2015 or risk losing the progress that has been made towards taking this pioneering technique forward. We need to see a firm commitment to debating this issue in Parliament before the end of the year.”

Take a look at this news story about the controversial procedure and weigh in on whether this is a tremendous step forward in preventing life-altering diseases and disorders or simply a step to far.

Source: The Guardian

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