Our health, a precise equilibrium, may be disrupted by any disease at any given time. Scientific progress has moved beyond the realm of diagnoses and care of disease, and has now entered the new arena of prediction and prevention while still in the embryonic stage of life, in spite of unknown factors and risks. With the advancing technology comes challenges of safety and efficacy, along with ethical and social considerations. The 3-parent embryo or mitochondrial transfer technology ultimately raises one of the greatest questions we will perhaps ever face as voting Catholics. Are we willing to genetically modify humans on the embryonic level of life, impacting not just a single individual, but rather future generations of humans? But before we can address that question, we need to be informed of the scientific facts regarding this technology. Upon closer inspection of the distorted presentation of scientific facts by the proponents of this agenda, one can only see this as an indefensible act against humanity.
Briefly, mitochondria are tiny organelles found in almost every cell in the body. They are responsible for producing 90% of the cellular energy (in the form of ATP) necessary to maintain life and support growth. Mitochondria have their own unique DNA, known as mtDNA, which is distinctively different than our ‘blueprint’ DNA, or nDNA, found within the nucleus of the cell. Unlike our nDNA, which comes from both parents, mtDNA only comes from our mother. Mitochondrial disease is when mitochondria fail to do their job in producing enough energy to sustain life. Mitochondrial diseases are usually inherited (passed along from parents to children), but can be sporadic or due to pharmaceutical or environmental toxicity. They can be present at birth or develop later in life. They cause debilitating disabilities, attacking primary systems that demand the most cellular energy: skeletal muscles, nervous system, and heart. They are progressive, sometimes life-threatening, and there is no cure.
On February 3, 2015, the UK Parliament voted in favor of allowing the 3-parent embryo agenda (mitochondrial transfer technique) to precede to human trials, without adhering to the long-established protocols and standards of modern, ethical medicine in terms the research on animals before bringing it to the human stage of experimentation. This agenda was promoted to the public as a means to offer “hope” to families inflicted with the devastation of having children born with mitochondrial diseases. With clear and deliberate misrepresentation of statistical data, those promoting this agenda won the sympathetic hearts of those who do not wish to see children suffer. They did so by stating 1 in 5,000 babies are born per year with a life-threatening mitochondrial disease. Even Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, whose own son died at the age of six of a rare disease associated with mitochondrial defects, supported this endeavor. Parliament voted in favor, in spite of the outcries of many well-known and respected men and women of science who presented concise factual, logical arguments against it.
While this technique involves aspects of In vitro fertilization (IVF), its goal is not to address infertility, but rather IVF is the means to deliver an embryo that is created with the mother’s nucleus, the father’s sperm and the donor’s egg with healthy mitochondria whose own nucleus was removed and destroyed. In fact, women who are at risk of passing along a mitochondria disease are no more at risk of having infertility problems than the general public. Two methods to accomplish this are known as (1) maternal spindle transfer and (2) pronuclear transfer. Maternal spindle transfer involves “repairing” before fertilization. The mother’s egg with the unhealthy mitochondria has the nucleus removed and kept. The donor’s egg with the healthy mitochondria has the nuclear material removed and destroyed. The donor’s egg, with the healthy mitochondria, has the mother’s nucleus transferred into it, and then fertilized by the father’s sperm.
In the case of pronuclear transfer, the “repair” is done after fertilization. The parent’s fertilized egg with unhealthy mitochondria has the parent’s nuclear material removed and kept. The donor’s fertilized egg with healthy mitochondria has its nuclear material removed and destroyed. Then the donor egg has the parent’s nuclear material placed inside the donor egg with healthy mitochondria. In both methods, critics of this procedure claim it is impossible to remove all of the defective mitochondria. More importantly, it is clearly seen that referring to this technology as mitochondrial transfer is inappropriate since it is actually the nucleus that is getting replaced and not the mitochondria.
Proponents deny this is genetic modification. They have strategically used the secular media in promoting this “mitochondrial replacement therapy” as a good and noble means of preventing mitochondrial diseases, by “dummying” down very complex biological processes, and misrepresenting data. They inform the public that mitochondrial replacement is nothing more than an “organ transplant” or “battery replacement” in terms of preventing mitochondrial disease in children. Such presentation is covertly oversimplified and their claims are being challenged by many esteemed members of the scientific community.
Notable scientists challenged this technology, addressing the necessity as well as the safety and efficacy. They submitted letters to the UK’s Parliament’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on Mitochondrial Donation Hearing. It is truly baffling how their validly raised concerns were not properly addressed. Two highly recognized scientists were Dr. Stuart A. Newman, a Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College and Dr. David A. Prentice, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the John Paul II Institute, both presented strong arguments of opposition. Dr. Newman stated in his letter that the techniques are “inherently unsafe.”
According to Dr. Newman, in referring to the UK’s approval, “the first cases of large-scale human genetic engineering.” He believes it is more acceptable for the public to hear mitochondrial replacement instead of nucleus replace, and that’s deceptive on the part of the proponents as it shields them from having it be linked to cloning techniques.
Further evidence of the deception on the part of the proponents is seen when that 1 in 5,000 prevalence statistic is examined. The risk of passing on a mitochondrial disease depends on several factors, including the location of the mutation. The proponents of the 3-person embryo agenda have been swaying public opinion in their favor by presenting an alarming figure, claiming 1:5000 births will result in a mitochondrial disease. Since this agenda involves only manipulation of mtDNA, the public is being lead to believe, incorrectly, that 1 in 5,000 births are babies born with, or will develop in childhood, a mitochondrial disease due to defects in the mtDNA. This data needs to be ‘re-framed’ truthfully so the public can make an informed decision. In truth, that reported figure represents those born who may develop a mitochondrial disease in their life-time, and does not represent those born with the disease manifested at birth or childhood. That figure comes from epidemiological studies, where studies in children and adults are combined and both nDNA and mtDNA mutations are considered, and it was concluded the minimum prevalence is at least 1 in 5,000. The actual prevalence of mtDNA-related disorders accounted for about 15% of the total (DiMauro, 2005). In fact, data indicates the majority of mitochondrial diseases (80 to 90%) that present at birth, or develop in childhood, are due to nDNA (R.H. Hass, 2007). So that 1:5000 figure is an umbrella, under this stands mitochondrial diseases that result from:
- nDNA mutations (accounts for 80 to 90 % that present at birth or childhood)
- mtDNA mutations (which varies in severity and time of on-set, and accounts for 15% of the total)
- defects in the intergenomic communication
So what’s the actual number of candidates who might benefit? Sr. Renee Mirkes, of the Pope Paul VI Institute, noted that Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for Britain, and champion of mitochondrial replacement (MRT) therapy, said this was a “life-saving treatment that will save around 10 lives a year.” Davies thinks helping just 10 women justifies legalizing MRT. So we have gone from a proposed reproductive technique that will save 1 in 5,000 babies from a mitochondrial disease to just 10 lives a year. However, that low number likely represents factor analysis due to a number of barriers agreeing to participate in this technology, ranging from high costs to moral objections. A more actual representation of potential candidates in the UK to undergo this IVF ‘3-person embryo’ technology, with potential benefit, would be about 150 births per year if all the women opted for the procedure (The New England Journal of Medicine, January 28, 2015). That same number would apply to births in the United States, if made legal. So, given the availability in both countries, the range of births that would be impacted by this technology is somewhere between 20 and 300 births per year. That’s a far cry from the reported 1 in 5,000 births.
Proponents have denied repeatedly that this is not a Trojan horse, to gain entrance with political, legal and social acceptance to advance to further genetic modification. How can they defend that when it can be demonstrated so few women would be impacted by this technology? This type of technology requires substantial financial investments, and investors aren’t going to put money towards a project that would only help so few.
The Catholic Church is clear about this technology. The Church tells us that somatic gene therapy, where patients undergo gene therapy that will not pass any modifications to their children as is used for therapeutic reasons, is acceptable and considered to be a “moral good.” However, the Church is clear on germ-line therapy, or genetic modification that will be inherited. The embryos that would be created under this 3-parent embryo would indeed pass their modifications on to future generations, and this is forbidden. More can be found on the topic of germ-line modification in Dignitas Personae, the 2008 instruction on bioethics from the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith.
You have the opportunity to express your opinion, and perhaps influence the outcome of this agenda becoming a reality in the United States. The FDA has asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to conduct a consensus committee to evaluate this technology. The IOM Consensus Committee will hold open meetings for public comment on March 31 (8:30 AM to 5 PM) and April 1 (8:30 AM until noon) and on two dates in May, to be announced. You are encouraged, if you live in the DC area and wish to present your position in an oral statement, to register for the upcoming meetings and attend (500 Fifth St. NW). If you’re not able to attend, please submit your comments either by email (MitoEthics@nas.edu) or by US mail (Attn: Michael Berrios; Institute of Medicine, 500 Fifth St NW, Washington, DC 20001).
NMBarry, is a devout Catholic and is trained in academic research. She graduated with honors, earning a Bachelor of Science in Biological Science and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Michigan. She has completed graduate studies in Molecular cell biology, as well as Health Psychology. She is in the unique position of understanding the implications of this 3-parent embryo technology from the inside out, as she herself has a mitochondrial disease.