Two households, both alike in dignity,
On fair Earth, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
(From that great classic play, Romeo and Juliet and an Unnamed Egg Donor)
Let’s compare the scientific relevance of the British House of Lords and the Republican party of the United States.
There are currently concerns about nuclear transfer procedures in human fertility treatments — you may have heard some of the noise in the news about babies with three parents. Cases of mitochondrial disease are passed on from mothers to all of their children, but one way around it is to use donor mitochondria, so woman #1 provides the cytoplasm for a healthy egg, woman #2 provides the nuclear DNA, and a man provides the sperm that fertilizes the genetic material provided by woman #2. That’s three parents, one child.
Two techniques can be used, maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer. Both have been tested in monkeys and mice, and they work. Both have risks; these are single-cell surgical procedures, basically, and there will be failures — there have been failures. There is the danger of damaging the nuclear DNA, and also, of accidentally transferring the genetically broken mitochondria to the new cell, propagating the problem you were trying to overcome.
Both procedures involve removing the unfertilized nucleus of a donated egg cell, with healthy mitochondria. In maternal spindle transfer, the unfertilized nucleus is then sucked out of the mother-to-be’s egg, and inserted into the healthy cell. This hybrid cell is then fertilized by the father’s sperm using standard in vitro fertilization techniques.
Pronuclear transfer differs in that the mother-to-be’s egg is fertilized first, and then the diploid nucleus is transferred to the donated cell. The only difference between the two is whether the nucleus is fertilized first, in pronuclear transfer, or after the transplant, in maternal spindle transfer.
This is a fine distinction. Pronuclear transfer has been used for decades in animals; maternal spindle transfer is a newer technique. Both ought to be explored, and it’s really up to the parents, the doctors, and scientists involved to decide what is best on a case by case basis. In that sense, this discussion in the UK House of Lords is rather pointless. They aren’t the ones who will have to deal with the consequences.
But I was amazed: they were actually fairly well informed about the issues! There was a lot of pompous puffery between the “noble lords and ladies” (they actually call each other that!), but it looks like they did their homework. Even the ones I disagree with.
Lord Patel explains why these operations are necessary.
It is important that I put down some ground work. What are we talking about? We are talking about a mitochondrial DNA disease that commonly affects multiple different organs. Symptoms include severe muscle weakness, diabetes, heart problems, cardiac failure and sudden cardiac death, as well as central nervous system problems, which include dementia, epilepsy, stroke and such other horrible conditions. It results in death, which can occur early in childhood or after a prolonged period of incapacity and pain that can last for years.
It is important to have some facts about mitochondrial DNA genetics and inheritance. Mitochondrial DNA is strictly inherited maternally, via the egg. The mitochondrial DNA copy number and the number of mitochondria vary between cell types, with more than 200,000 in the egg and early embryo down to perhaps as few as 10 to 20 in many cells of the two to three-week old embryo, and hundreds to thousands in most cell types in adults, where the number tends to correlate with energy demand. Cells can have a mixture of two or more types of mitochondrial DNA sequence, a condition referred to as heteroplasmy, in contrast to homoplasmy, where each copy has the same sequence. More than 300 distinct mutations of mitochondrial DNA have been found in patients with mitochondrial disease. Although some mutations are far more common than others, if an individual is heteroplasmic, with a mixture of mutant and normal mitochondrial DNA, the proportion of the former determines whether they show symptoms of mitochondrial disease. Some women at risk of transmitting mitochondrial disease to their children are heteroplasmic and may have levels considerably below the disease threshold, but their eggs can have very high levels of mutant mitochondrial DNA or even be homoplasmic. This can be explained by the so-called bottleneck, which I will not go into in detail, but, during the development of the egg, only a certain number of mitochondria go into fertilisation, and that causes a bottleneck that sometimes results in only the mutant mitochondria getting through.
It is estimated that at least one in 200 children in the UK is born with some faulty mitochondrial DNA—so quite a lot of them may well have some faulty mitochondrial DNA. It is estimated that one in 6,500 babies goes on to develop serious mitochondrial disorders. The severity varies from mild to extremely debilitating and may result in early childhood death. Almost 2,500 women of child-bearing age in the UK are at risk of transmitting mitochondrial disease to their children. Estimates based on this figure suggest that between 100 and 150 births a year in the UK risk passing on mitochondrial disease to the child. If today we were discussing cancer or dementia, and how we could modify those diseases with some form of genetic or mitochondrial manipulation so that people would not get it, everybody would be in favour of it; but as mitochondrial disease affects 100 to 150 people a year, we do not take it so seriously—or so it seems.
I’m actually quite impressed. And then I read a few accounts of American legislators, and despaired.
You recall Idaho representative Vito Barbieri, who wondered if women could swallow itty-bitty cameras to inspect their vaginas. He’s only one. There are more idiots.
In Georgia, Republican representative Tom Kirby wants to make a law against human-animal hybrids. He’s very concerned about those scientists meddling where only God should tread, but he wants to be very careful to leave a loophole protecting natural chimeras. Like mermaids, centaurs, bird-men, or werewolves.
Y’know the mermaids in the ocean, that’s been around for a long time,Kirby explained.I don’t think we should create them. But if they exist, that’s fine.
Y’know I really don’t like centaurs,he went on.They really have bad attitudes most of the time and we’ve got enough people with bad attitudes as it is.
Bird-men, he said, are understandable enough.I think man has been trying to fly forever,and it would be fineif it’s a natural genetic mutation,but to create flying humans in a lab, well, that’s a step too far.
Similarly,(w)e don’t want to laboratorily [sic] create the werewolf,the lawmaker said, but if they arenaturally occurring in the environment,then they should be left alone.
I’m going to have to use the word “laboratorily” more often. But this man must be stopped, lest he interfere with my top secret project to create flying were-mermaids and cephalo-centaurs.
Or perhaps you’d rather hear from Nevada Republican Michele Fiore, who thinks cancer is a fungal infection.
If you have cancer, which I believe is a fungus, and we can put a pic line into your body and we’re flushing with, say, salt water, sodium cardonate through that line and flushing out the fungus,Fiore said on her radio show over the weekend.These are some procedures that are not FDA-approved in America that are very inexpensive, cost-effective.
Oh, dog. How can it be that a legislative body whose members are selected by the luck of inheritance can be so much better educated than one whose members are supposedly elected by merit?