Scientists promise a cure for mitochondrial disorders by fusing three people's genetic material into single embryo

Some people expected controversy over genetic science to die down with the announcement of stem cells created from decidedly uncontroversial skin cells -- they were wrong.  A new research study conducted in Britain is creating a firestorm of debate over the ethics of gene manipulation.

British scientists reported last week that they successfully created human embryos from the DNA of not two, but three people -- two women and a man.  Researchers tried to downplay concerns of ethics with genetic modification, citing that the embryos chiefly consist of the DNA from one man and one women, but contain select segments from the other women. 

The goal of the research is to one day be able to eliminate hereditary disease and defects, via gene splicing from healthy individuals. 

Patrick Chinnery, a professor of neurogenetics at Newcastle University, states, "We are not trying to alter genes, we're just trying to swap a small proportion of the bad ones for some good ones."

Despite being presented at a conference, the research is being met with some skepticism as it has not peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal.  The scandal over a South Korean researcher's fraudulent human cloning claims in 2005 having left many in the scientific community skeptical of big genetics claims, without cold, hard evidence to validate them.

According to Chinnery and the British researchers, their research involved implanting the DNA from a women with a mitochondrial disorder into the egg of a women with healthy mitochondria.  Thus the woman with the genetic disorder passed on the rest of her genetic legacy, while the other woman contributed only DNA in the form of healthy mitochondria and no chromosomal DNA.

The research is funded by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, a British charity. 

Scientists caution that the mitochondria only represent a minuscule gene portion.  Real genetic modification won't come until the distant future.  Chinnery said, "Most of the genes that make you who you are are inside the nucleus.  We're not going anywhere near that."

In total ten embryos were reported to be created, though they were only allowed to develop a scant five days.  No embryos were implanted.  Researchers hope to offer the treatment to parents undergoing in-vitro fertilization, in a few years, though.

Francoise Shenfield, a fertility expert with the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, an unaffiliated center enthused, "If successful, this research could give families who might otherwise have a bleak future a chance to avoid some very grave diseases."

Similar experiments have been carried out by Japanese research teams on mice with mitochondrial defects.  The British parliament is supposed to take up the issue of regulation of possible future treatments involving the procedure, should sufficient documentation be delivered to validate Chinnery and his team's claims.

For an interesting look at the ethics, benefits, and risks of genetic engineering, refer to DailyTech blogger Michael Asher's article "Biotech, Genetic Engineering and the Boy Who Cried Wolf".

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