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Philippa Taylor

When is genetic modification not genetic modification? When the Government decides it isn’t

Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at CMF. She has an MA in Bioethics from St Mary’s University College and a background in policy work on bioethics and family issues.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

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Ministers know there is widespread public opposition to growing genetically modified (GM) crops in the UK, and will therefore appreciate that if more of the general public were aware that they are planning to allow GM babies to be created, using completely experimental techniques, there would be far more concern and opposition to it.

So the on-going controversy over growing GM crops, and creating GM babies, has led to the Government redefining the term genetic modification, in order to make it appear far less controversial. They have decreed that genetic modification now excludes mitochondrial genetic modification:

The Government has decided to adopt a working definition for the purpose of taking forward these regulations. The working definition that we have adopted is that genetic modification involves the germ-line modification of nuclear DNA (in the chromosomes) that can be passed on to future generations.’

Therefore mitochondrial donation techniques do not constitute genetic modification. Apparently.

But as Director of Human Genetics Alert Dr David King comments: ‘Their restriction of the term to nuclear inheritable changes is clearly political. They don’t want people like me saying that they are legalising GM babies.’

And Lord Robert Winston, Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London, rightly says: ‘Of course mitochondrial transfer is genetic modification and this modification is handed down the generations. It is totally wrong to compare it with a blood transfusion or a transplant and an honest statement might be more sensible and encourage public trust.’

This latest manipulation of word and terms has comes shortly after the HFEA declared that the techniques are safe to use in humans, by only saying that they are ‘not unsafe’! I looked at what was going in with that particular word play in a previous blog here.

So where are we now with three parent embryos?

The Government conducted a twelve week public consultation between February and May on draft regulations that would enable mitochondrial donation techniques to be used on humans. They have now issued their report and have decided to proceed with putting regulations before Parliament, albeit onhealthy levaquin with a small nod to giving further ‘consideration’ to safety issues. This comes as little surprise as they were clearly determined to go ahead regardless of the opposition expressed in the consultation responses.

So where will we be in a few years time with three parent embryos?

I strongly suspect that the answer is, nowhere. Human reproductive cloning, so-called therapeutic cloning for embryonic stem cell research (which has thus far failed to deliver) and animal human hybrids are all farcical footnotes in UK history, and I am sure that this will be too.

Why?

Because these techniques are highly experimental, unproven, known to be very unsafe (bear in mind that children’s lives will be the experiment), ineffective, costly, a waste of public money, insufficiently understood, unnecessary (only potentially helping 10-20 families a year) and will require large numbers of eggs to proceed, even for just a few families.

Just following up one of those many concerns, how often has the media, or Government cited the following limitation, set out by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, to using these techniques?

One of the major barriers mentioned by scientists when assessing the potential for cell reconstruction techniques to become treatments is the fact that many more egg donors will need to be found to undertake the research required in order for the safety and efficacy of PNT and MST to be established, and if therapies are to be provided in future. A shortage of egg donors is an acknowledged problem in respect of donation for reproduction, and it is not yet clear whether egg donors would be more likely to come forward in sufficient numbers to take part in mitochondrial donation for research or treatment use.’ (my emphasis).

I explain in more detail why the numbers will not (indeed, should not) be found in this blog here.

Much is being promised. Little will be delivered. Why doesn’t Government instead concentrate on offering public funding for real treatments and in providing better support for affected individuals and their families?

Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy

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