Genetically Modified Babies

Article excerpt

Regulators consider radical biological procedures.

An advisory committee of the Food and Drug Administration is holding meetings this week to consider radical biological procedures that, if successful, would produce genetically modified human beings.

This is a dangerous step. These techniques would change every cell in the bodies of children born as a result of their use, and these alterations would be passed down to future generations.

The F.D.A. calls them mitochondrial manipulation technologies. The procedures involve removing the nuclear material either from the egg or embryo of a woman with inheritable mitochondrial disease and inserting it into a healthy egg or embryo of a donor whose own nuclear material has been discarded. Any offspring would carry genetic material from three people -- the nuclear DNA of the mother and father, and the mitochondrial DNA of the donor.

Roughly 1,000 to 4,000 children born in the United States each year will develop a mitochondrial disease, most by age 10, with symptoms that can range from mild to devastating. These diseases typically prevent mitochondria from converting food into energy and are the result of genetic abnormalities, although some cases can be caused by exposures to toxins. Disorders caused by mutations in the mitochondrial DNA are passed down from the mother.

Developers of these modification techniques say they are a way for women with mitochondrial disease to give birth to healthy children to whom they are related genetically. Some are also promoting their use for age-related infertility. These are worthy goals. But these procedures are deeply problematic in terms of their medical risks and societal implications. Will the child be born healthy, or will the cellular disruptions created by this eggs-as- Lego-pieces approach lead to problems later on? What about subsequent generations? And how far will we go in our efforts to engineer humans?

These sorts of concerns were first voiced decades ago, well before the human genome had even been "mapped." Those were the days when our accelerating knowledge about genetics led to over- optimistic hopes for quick fixes to an array of afflictions and grandiose visions of designing genetically enhanced babies to be more intelligent, athletic, musically talented and the like.

More recently, many scholars, scientists and policy makers have urged a different approach: We should carefully and thoughtfully apply the tools of human genetic engineering to treat medical conditions in people, but we should not use them to manipulate the genetic traits of future children. …