Unintended consequences of genetic manipulation

Scientific advances must be viewed from all angles as we attempt to understand the ramifications of progress. So it comes as no surprise to read the following excerpts from the daily AMA communication.

Scientists are now able to manipulate genes in order to eliminate some genetic diseases. On its surface, this development is favorable. But the unintended consequences include something on the lines of "I'll have a blue-eyed, blond-haired genius boy please and leave out the Tay-Sachs disease."

From that possibility, we must proceed cautiously.


Excerpt:

FDA panel considers controversial fertility procedure. CBS Evening News (2/25, story 7, 1:35, Pelley) reported in its broadcast that an FDA panel “began two days of meetings” on Tuesday and Wednesday “about a controversial medical procedure that critics believe could lead to designer babies.” CBS’ Dr. Jon Lapook said, “It’s controversial because in addition to the DNA of the mother and the father, material from a third person is used in the process.” Lapook noted that the concerns over the procedure range from technical issues such as how to make it “safe and effective” to ethical issues of creating “designer babies.” The New York Times (2/26, Tavernise, Subscription Publication) noted that the agency has asked an expert committee “to summarize current science to determine whether the approach – which has been performed successfully in monkeys by researchers in Oregon and in people more than a decade ago – is safe enough to be used again in people.” The paper pointed out the meeting is “meant to address the scientific issues around the procedure, not the ethics.” Specifically, the scientists have been asked to discuss “the risks to the mother and the potential child and how future studies should be structured, among other issues.” The Washington Post (2/26, Cha, Somashekhar) noted that the FDA’s disclosure “several months ago” about its intention to hold a public hearing on the matter “elicited an outcry from scientists, ethicists and religious groups, who say the technology raises grave safety concerns and could open the door to creating ‘designer’ babies, whose eye color, intelligence and other characteristics are selected by parents.” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society and a vocal critic of the procedure, “said human trials would mark the first time the FDA had approved a gene-modification technique whose effect is transmitted to a person’s descendants,” according to the Post. Reuters (2/26, Begley) provided background information, noting that during the in-vitro fertilization, the father would donate the sperm while the mother would provide her egg and its nucleus. However, if the mother is a carrier of harmful genetic mutations in the cell’s mitochondria, scientists will replace that with a healthy mitochondria from the second woman, so the child will not have any harmful mitochondrial disease. In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times (2/26) argued that “manipulation of human genes could provide huge advances in our ability to cure or prevent terrible diseases.” Still, the paper suggested, “it is vital to proceed with extreme caution on research that involves possible permanent changes in the human genome.” The news was also covered by the AP (2/26, Perrone),MedPage Today (2/26), HealthDay (2/26) and Bloomberg News (2/25).

Paul Dorio