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28 Jul, 2014 15:59

A nation duped? UK govt. paves way for GM babies

A nation duped? UK govt. paves way for GM babies

Britain’s government has allegedly misled the public with respect to a newly developed invitro fertilisation (IVF) procedure that experts claim will lead to the birth of “genetically modified babies.”

A group of prominent scientists, including Lord Winston - a long-standing expert in fertility treatment, have criticized Britain’s Department of Health for attempting to furtively introduce a new IVF technique that will allow the DNA of future generations to be manipulated.

The British government has attempted to redefine the term “genetic modification” (GM) to include a controversial new method that will culminate in babies inheriting their genetic make-up from three separate individuals, the scientists say.

Mitochondria are minute cell parts that cultivate metabolic energy from glucose. They are controlled by 37 mitochondrial genes that form individual DNA molecules outside cell nuclei.

Approximately one in 6,500 new-borns are afflicted with inherited genetic defects annually. Related mitochondrial diseases are often highly debilitating and painful, causing chronic ill health, decreased quality of life and premature death.

By attempting to integrate the donation of mitochondria into IVF treatments, the Government hope to empower affected women with an opportunity to have biological offspring who are free of such debilitating conditions.

While mitochondrial DNA amounts to a mere 0.2 per cent of a genome, the technique is particularly controversial because it allegedly introduces the practice of genetic modification in humans.

Hidden in the depths of a recently penned Department of Health document, the legislative change has been orchestrated to normalize mitrochondrial donation – a technique designed to prevent genetically inherited diseases being propagated by utilizing healthy mitochondria taken from a donor egg or embryo.

But those opposed to the scientific method argue that the use of such healthy donor mitochondria will produce “three parent embryos,” and could herald a new era of “designer babies” and GM children.

While the British government has admitted it recently made the decision to adopt “a working definition [of ‘GM’] for the purpose of taking forward these regulations,” numerous scientists believe this covert legislative shift is inherently dishonest. They also caution it could seriously undermine public confidence in medical experts who endorse the technique’s state-wide introduction.

Should the related legislation be passed, the UK will be the only state in the world where this practice is legal.

Criticizing the government’s underhand attempt to introduce the method, Lord Winston told the Independent:

“The government seems to have come to the right decision but used bizarre justification. Of course, mitochondrial transfer is genetic modification and this modification is handed down the generations. It is totally wrong to compare it with a blood transfusion or a transplant and an honest statement might be more sensible and encourage public trust.”

Ted Morrow, an evolutionary biologist based at the University of Sussex, also sharply criticized the new definition of GM, which notably excludes changes to human mitochondrial genes or any other genetic material that is external to chromosomes in nuclei.

“My impression is the government is doing all it can to contain and define these kinds of terms in ways that favor mitochondrial replacement being introduced as an uncontroversial therapy,” Dr Morrow told the Independent.

A new IVF technique, backed by the UK government, could herald a new era of “designer babies” and GM children, according to scientists. (Reuters / Mansi Thapliyal)

“They push the idea that mitochondrial DNA does nothing more than regenerate more mitochondria, which are nothing more than cellular batteries, and that mitochondrial genes don’t encode traits relevant to personal identity and so on,” he added.

In an official statement last week, however, Britain’s Department of Health contradicted the claim the practice equates to genetic modification in humans.

“There is no universally agreed definition of ‘genetic modification’ in humans – people who have organ transplants, blood donations or even gene therapy are not generally regarded as being ‘genetically modified’,” an official Department of Health spokesperson said.

“A working definition” of genetic modification has been employed in an effort to bring this new medical policy to fruition, according to the Department of Health.

But Dr David King, of the Human Genetics Alert campaign, recently argued the government is “playing PR games based on very dubious science.”

Alterations to mitochondrial genes effectively signal genetic modification, he emphasized.

The Government’s “restriction of the term to nuclear inheritable changes is clearly political. They don’t want people like me saying that they are legalizing GM babies,” he concluded.