Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Healing Broken Batteries"

"Regulator to consult public plans for new fertility treatments" (Ian Sample, The Guardian)

In the United Kingdom, 1 in every two hundred people are affected by diseases caused by glitches in the genetic material in the mitochondria.  These diseases most often affect the brain, heart and muscle function.  

Mitochondria, often thought of as the batteries for they provide energy, are composed of 37 genes.  The genes contribute to 0.2% of the genetic makeup.  Mitochondria are only passed down from mothers. 

The Welcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford would like to reduce, and ultimately end, the number of diseases caused by glitches in the genetic material in the mitochondria.  

To do so, the Centre has been developing two processes of genetic modification; maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer.  Of the two processes, maternal spindle transfer is the more developed of the two.

During maternal spindle transfer, the nucleus of the mother's egg is removed and inserted into a healthy female donor's egg.  Thus, the egg has the mother's chromosome (held inside the nucleus) and the donor's healthy mitochondria.  This new egg is then fertilized by the father's sperm, and the resulting offspring contains the DNA of both parents and the mitochondria of the healthy female donor.  

Pronuclear transfer is essentially the same process, but is performed on an early-stage embryo as opposed to an egg.  

This form of genetic modification is not yet legal or public.  It is rather controversial, for it is yet another step using genetic modification.  Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, is to be informed of public opinion and of the process by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.  A parliamentary debate will be held to consult Jeremy Hunt and HFEA to determine the legality.  

There is great controversy surrounding the work of the Welcome Trust Centre.  How far will genetic modification go?  Will we eventually be creating "ideal" offspring by using different parts of cells?  Should the donor be anonymous?  These questions are all of great concern in determining whether this form of genetic modification will be approved.  

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