The following post was written by our medical director and award-winning medical researcher Dr. Sonya Kashyap.
Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times recently published an article on Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s advancement in fertility science – by replacing the nucleus from a human egg, the Soviet-born scientist has found a way to help women conceive children without passing on genetic defects in their cellular mitochondria.
But his technique has drawn the ire of bioethicists and the scrutiny of federal regulators.
As a medical practitioner and researcher, I can understand both sides of the argument. Some people view this as one step closer to genetic engineering for positive characteristics, which to many, is contentious. Although I cannot argue that there might be ethical issues surrounding this technique, it’s a giant step towards curing lethal and morbid diseases.
In medicine, many revolutionary treatments are initially scrutinized as they threaten known boundaries in science and ethics – this includes treatments for everything from cancer to HIV. But without pushing these envelopes, we would not be able to find cures for these deadly conditions. The fact is these scientific and often controversial breakthroughs save lives.
The same can be said of current fertility technology. Critics attack pre-implantation genetic diagnoses because they feel it would lead to designer babies. But with appropriate laws and regulations to prevent genetic engineering for positive eugenics, this technology would help families conceive babies who will not receive the often deadly conditions that their mothers might carry. It would also, from a financial standpoint, help reduce both the burden on parents and the health care system. By eliminating the root cause to a mitochondrial, genetically inherited disease, parents and their children would lead healthy, carefree lives.
As a physician in Canada where regulations restrict options for mothers who have mitochondrial disease, it is heartbreaking to see the parents’ faces when you tell them that there is no way to prevent this from happening again. The only option available to them is to use a donor egg or adopt, both of which are difficult in this country.
In medicine, the best solutions are often the most intuitive but they may be technically challenging. Although Dr. Mitalipov’s method has yet to be proven clinically applicable and successful, his technique is a very important gateway to saving potentially thousands of lives. One only has to see a child with mitochondrial disease to understand the potential impact of such a technological advancement.
It is up to us to utilize technology responsibly but not halt the progress of it.