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Robert Klitzman: Three-Parent Babies? “It’s More of a Transplant.”

On February 2, 2015, director of the M.S. in Bioethics program Dr. Robert Klitzman appeared on Al Jazeera America to discuss the UK’s so-called three-parent baby law. This proposal recently passed in the House of Commons and would allow potential parents with unhealthy mitochondria to create an embryo using a nuclear genome transfer technique. This genetic modification procedure replaces unhealthy mitochondria and therefore prevents the inheritance of deadly mutations.

Klitzman says, “It's an important step because there are hundreds of children who are born with terrible diseases where they die as infants because of mutations in the mitochondria. So if we could allow parents to have children and not have their deadly mutations and their mitochondria passed on and have a healthy child, I think that's a great thing.”

He goes on to explain the procedure: “In the cell of the egg that makes human beings, there is a nucleus that has over 99 percent of our DNA. There's a little bit of the DNA – less than one percent – that are in these other little things in the cell called mitochondria that were once actually bacteria that got in the cell, and they make energy for us. Very rarely, there are mutations in the little bit of DNA in the mitochondria, and kids die as infants. So what we're able to do is take a mother who has a healthy nucleus...but she has these bad mitochondria. We take the nucleus out and put it in another woman's egg who has good mitochondria and take out that woman's nucleus and then we have a sperm fertilize it, and we have a healthy child.”

What about claims that such a practice might lead to extreme genetic modification? Klitzman says, “What we're doing is only treating people who have these deadly mutations in the mitochondria. We're not looking for people to have blond hair and blue eyes.” He likens this designer baby argument to equating two trips, one to the corner mailbox and one to the moon: “They're both trips, but they're completely different things.”

To further illustrate this faulty logic, he offers another metaphor: “It's no different than saying, ‘I have someone else's kidney in me, and so I'm really two people.’ It's more of a transplant.”

Klitzman reminds viewers that this House of Commons decision is only one step in a process of legalizing this mitochondrial manipulation: “Remember, all that the House of Commons passed today was to allow research on this technique. They're not saying this is ready for prime time.” He says, “It's just, Will this work? Is this something that we should explore? I would hope the FDA would go along and do the same thing.”