In 1997, researchers announced that the first successful transfer of genetic material had taken place in 30 human babies. This announcement brought on a whirlwind of criticism, with fears that this breakthrough will be the beginning of an age where human traits are no longer determined by chance and nature, but rather, by human design. Critics voiced fears that procedures such as this will lead the way to a genetically engineered human world, like in the Sci-Fi thriller GATTACA, where people choose which traits to pass on to their children. Recently, a new article came out, reviving the topic, as these children will be graduating from high school and beginning their adult lives.
Yet the allegations concerning the technique used to create these babies back in 1997 are baseless, and stem from a lack of knowledge about the procedure itself.
The procedure, called ooplasmic transfer, was used to allow women with impaired fertility to give birth. It entails the injection of ooplasm (the substance inside a woman’s egg cell) from a healthy donor into the egg cell of the woman whose fertility is compromised. Then, the egg is fertilized and implanted in the uterus. This procedure produces egg cells with two different women’s mitochondrial DNA, and children born from this procedure will have both the mitochondrial DNA of their mother and of the donor. However, it is important to realize that mitochondrial DNA is separate from nuclear DNA – that which controls most of our visible traits. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited solely from the mother, and codes only for proteins used by the mitochondria themselves. Children born as the result of ooplasmic transfer will not display the traits of the donor, and are not the result of genetic modification. In fact, it is impossible to modify most genetic traits using this procedure.
Despite the inability to manipulate genetic traits using this procedure, there has been popular resistance to this technique, and the FDA has decided to ban it pending future animal studies and other pre-clinical data.
It is important to realize that procedures such as these stem from the need to increase fertility in women who want to have children of their own, and not from a selfish desire to create “designer babies”. Although genetic selection procedures exist, they are strictly regulated in most countries and are only used to screen for serious diseases and conditions such as Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, and Down’s syndrome. Overall, we as a society do not seem quite so close to the world of GATTACA as some critics might suggest.
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