Scientists in the United Kingdom have been pressing the ethical boundaries in biomedical research for some time now, but an announcement made today takes us further toward the posthuman future many of us have been dreading.
Even as Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has been calling for public reaction to recent proposals, on Thursday the agency granted a license to researchers at Newcastle University, and will allow the creation of human embryos with genetic material taken from two mothers.
Here’s how The Guardian [London] described the procedure: The researchers will first fuse sperm with an egg taken from a woman at risk of passing on a mitochondrial disease. Before the sperm and egg form an embryo, they will be transplanted into a healthy egg taken from another woman, leaving the defective mitochondria behind. The embryo can then develop as normal.
The scientists intend to use the cloned embryos in research directed toward the treatment of mitochondrial diseases.
Current British law would prevent the implantation of the embryos. Nevertheless, opponents of the HFEA’s decision pointed to the fact that current laws would also prohibit any embryonic research that would change the genetic structure of the embryo.
The agency’s official news release defended the decision, and offered what appears to be an very ambiguous defense: Expert views were also given on the meaning of the phrase ‘genetic structure’ in relation to the proposed research and the committee heard that this phrase has no precise scientific meaning. No precise scientific meaning? Then how does the HFEA know how to operate within the law?
As The Times [London] reported: Some observers said the HFEA had overstepped its remit when the Government has begun a review of embryology legislation. A legal challenge is likely because the appeal turned on reinterpreting a ban on altering the genetic structure of a cell.
Once this procedure is performed, there is no reason that the research must stop at an attempt to create human embryos free of certain mitochondrial diseases. The same technology could be used to create designer babies.
DESIGNER LINKS: The Independent, The Telegraph [news], The Telegraph [analysis],The Scotsman, Channel 4 News [UK], BBC News, Medical News Today,