Bioethics: Mitochondrial Transfer
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The article, published in February 2014, focused on the controversies and benefits of mitochondrial transfer. Mitochondrial transfer is a biological process designed to counteract debilitating mitochondrial diseases, primarily those affecting neurological and physical function. It involves the transfer of a nucleus from an affected egg to the embryo or egg containing unaffected mitochondria, thereby preventing the transplanted embryo from inheriting mitochondrial illnesses. Therefore, the embryo will contain 3 people’s DNA; the DNA of the 2 biological parents and the DNA of the host egg. Despite limited human testing, the procedure has been evaluated as minimally invasive, without long-lasting side effects.
Despite the significant advantages that mitochondrial transfer may confer, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the procedure. For example, researchers believe that it is unethical for the embryo to contain the DNA of 3 separate individuals, thereby complicating the question of custody. However, I believe that the complication of custody is not a valid concern; the opportunity for the embryo to not be afflicted by mitochondrial diseases is greater than the question of who deserves custody, primarily because the latter can be resolved and is a minor concern when compared to the preservation of quality of life. Furthermore, I believe that it is similar to surrogacy (which is currently legal), but with the opportunity for the parents to have a child that is to some extent biologically theirs– a psychological boon.
Similar to surrogacy, where the surrogate makes the autonomous decision to bear the child of another, it should be understood that the bearer of the embryo relinquishes the right to the child as a natural consequence of the procedure. Therefore, I believe that the question of custody should not be an objection to mitochondrial transfer, as a pre-op understanding or regulation should prevent legal complications. Lastly, I believe that the issue of the embryo containing 3 sets of DNA is also not a viable concern, as it does not affect the child’s character or physical appearance (a minor fraction of a cell’s DNA is contained in the mitochondria) and therefore it does not compromise or in any way alter their conscious quality of life.
Another ethical concern is the possibility that mitochondrial transfer may confer negative effects to future generations, not simply the intended recipient. I understand the logic of the concern. However, I believe that negative consequences can be prevented with extensive testing or screening. Currently, IVF is legal primarily because extensive screening for harmful genetic material has ensured the general safety of the procedure. If the same screening can be applied to mitochondrial transfer, it can ensure the general safety of the procedure. If one screens for harmful genetic material, there is a reduced chance that the embryo and future generations acquire a negative side-effect. Yes, there is still a chance that there remains negative genetic material. However, in most medical cases there is always a minor chance that there will be a negative outcome. People accept to undergo potentially risky medical procedures because they believe that the benefits outweigh the possible negative consequences. In my opinion, it is the same for mitochondrial transfer; one has to believe that the benefits– including the prevention of a life-threatening mental or physical handicap– negate the harmful effects of the procedure. Yes, it may harm multiple generations, but it is also equally (or, if diligent testing regulations are complied with, more) possible that it will benefit multiple generations who would otherwise inherit defective mitochondrial DNA.