Media reports on advances in medical genetics have a sad tendency to carry a dystopian tone. It is often the case that scarcely a paragraph is written before talk of ‘designer babies’ and Huxleyan disadvantage come to dominate the narrative. While this makes for punchy storytelling, it does little to represent the science accurately.
The recent landslide decision by the British House of Commons to allow the creation of IVF babies with genetic input from three people has served as a distressing example of the power of the media to dangerously distort scientific findings and conjure misleading narratives from potentially important and useful science.
The scientific advancement in question here focuses on a particularly important component of our cells: the mitochondria. As an integral part of how our cells turn food into energy, malfunctions of the mitochondria can result in a number of conditions, ranging from mild to fatal. These conditions tend to affect the most energy-demanding organs of the body, such as the brain, heart and liver. The mitochondria are maternally inherited, so if your mother carried malfunctioning mitochondria it was previously inevitable that you would too.
The new IVF technique developed by Prof. Doug Turnbull and his team at Newcastle University aims to mitigate the problem of inherited mitochondrial defects. The technique involves replacing the malfunctioning mitochondria from the natural mother with functional ones from an ovum donated by another woman.
Where some confusion seems to have arisen in media representations of this process is in the fact that the mitochondria contain their own small complement of DNA that governs how they function. So some genetic material is being contributed by the woman who donates her mitochondria – thus the much recycled ‘three-parent baby’ headline. Further, this contribution of some DNA from a third person has been widely portrayed as a kind of Gattaca-esque genetic modification; a slippery slope to designer and superior children.
The fact that seems to have either gotten lost or wilfully misrepresented in much media reporting is that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) contains a mere 13 protein-coding genes; a tiny fraction of a percent of the number of protein-coding genes in the whole human genome. Also, the genes present in the mitochondrial genome are all implicated in the basic process of energy production. In other words, this technique in no way modifies the DNA responsible for virtually all human traits – that is the nuclear DNA of the mother and father.
Claiming that replacing the mitochondria of a mother, and hence mitochondrial DNA, with that of a donor during IVF constitutes the production of a ‘designer baby’ with all of its associated connotations is not so different from claiming that replacing the battery in one’s car constitutes the production of a highly modified performance vehicle.
Having explained a little of the science, it should be clear that the term ‘three-parent baby’ is wildly inappropriate for describing any child to arise from this procedure. The term implies a misleading equality in the input and responsibility of the three providers of biological material. When the input of the mitochondrial donor is a tiny fraction of a percent it is a stretch to call them a parent in a biological sense, and absurd in any social sense. In fact, if one were to follow the ‘three-parent baby’ logic, any recipient of a bone marrow transplant could claim to have three parents – clearly nonsense.
While it is particular configurations of DNA that make us healthy, functioning members of the Homo sapiens species, what makes someone human, a child, a mother, or a father in any experientially meaningful sense is quite something else. Does being the recipient of a very small biological donation render one so different as to not warrant the basic respects and dignities that should be offered to any person? Myself, I think not.
Rather than getting entangled in page-turning dystopian fantasy, I feel that reporters of science ought to focus more on responsible representations of the facts. This way reasonable and well-informed public discourse can frame our scientific discussions and policy decisions. Further, and perhaps more importantly, unnecessary suffering can be averted for those who may benefit from impressive scientific advances like this.
Shaun Lehmann is a PhD Candidate at the John Curtin School of Medical Research