20 January 2014
Professor Emeritus of Clinical Genetics, University of NottinghamAppeared in BioNews 738
Having worked with families affected by genetic disorders for more than 40 years, both in the UK (with its multi-faith society) and in the Sultanate of Oman (where the majority are Muslim but other religions are allowed), I have seen and looked after many people with hereditary illnesses, including those with disabling mitochondrial conditions.
My experiences would strongly challenge Professor Calum MacKellar's view (see BioNews 736) that mitochondrial replacement treatments would not be forms of therapy, and that such techniques instead would make sure 'that certain persons are not brought into existence', and are therefore unethical.
Professor MacKellar is stating a minority view. The results of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) consultation on this topic showed that 56 percent of a representative sample of the UK public (979 subjects) who took part in face to face interviews were either positive or fairly positive towards altering the genetic makeup of an egg or embryo; likewise 44 percent were positive or fairly positive about the use of genetic material (e.g. mitochondria) from a third person. The numbers negative or fairly negative towards such treatments were 10 percent and 15 percent respectively. Support in the UK for therapeutic genetic procedures on eggs or embryos, provided that such work is licensed and monitored, greatly exceeds that for opposing minority opinions.
Professor MacKellar also wrongly states that mitochondrial spindle or pronuclear transfers involve 'the transfer of chromosomes between unfertilised or fertilised eggs'. He uses this misinterpretation to imply that the therapeutic procedure changes the whole individual, as opposed to what happens, the provision of normally functioning mitochondria so that cell metabolism can be improved.
Given Professor MacKellar's opinions it would be unethical if he or like-minded people were forced to participate in related mitochondrial research. Similarly, it would be unethical if Professor MacKellar's view predominated and blocked this particular mitochondrial research, supported by a majority.
Because a decision about whether or not to undergo mitochondrial replacement, if permitted, involves the informed choice of the individual patient and is a practice that would be licensed by the HFEA or other bodies, society is not making the 'consensual decision' feared by Professor MacKellar. On the contrary, social studies by the HFEA and others support the view that scientific progress can occur if those who wish to participate can do so under proper supervision. It is a blessing that those, like Professor MacKellar, who do not support this work, can also benefit from the increased knowledge. Likewise those, like me, who prefer such genetic interventions to be allowed, may benefit from the greater knowledge of the natural history of mitochondrial disorders in those who choose not to be so treated.
In this world there is huge diversity - of genomes, of environments and (in the case of mankind) of opinions. Surely a benevolent God would wish us to study the range of human diversity and to learn thereby how to minimise suffering?