In an effort to prevent and eradicate mitochondrial disease in their population, the state of California voted to make mitochondrial screening a mandatory procedure for all women of reproductive age. The state’s aim was to prevent maternal transmission of mitochondrial disease to the woman’s future children and the screening was added as a part of preconception care. Due to the persistence of Mitochondrial Disease groups, scientists and researchers moved mitochondrial disease to high priority and made it their goal to eradicate mitochondrial disease by 2030.
With this goal in mind, legislators, researchers and activists came together and introduced Proposition 44 to the November 2014 ballot. If passed, Prop 44 would require any woman who was deemed high risk for mitochondrial disease transmission to turn to IVF and mitochondrial replacement procedures to reproduce responsibly. In this way her future children would be safe from maternal transmission of mitochondrial disease, thus eradicating the possibility of passing mitochondrial disease to future generations.
While the above account is a highly fabricated scenario, it offers an interesting entrance into the controversy of mitochondrial replacement.
Mitochondrial replacement, also known as mitochondrial transfer or three-parent embryos, is the process through which healthy mitochondria can be incorporated into eggs or embryos when a woman has mitochondrial disease (Fiore, 2014). Although a slight misnomer, the techniques involved in these procedures transfer pro-nuclear DNA from one egg or embryo to another to produce an embryo that has functioning mitochondria and is biologically related to the intending mother (NCB).
Despite the advent of the procedure having worn off since its discovery in 2008, the controversy surrounding mitochondrial replacement has recently returned to the spotlight.
Current laws in the US and the UK, ban the implantation of a human embryo that has been genetically altered in any way (Toynbee, 2014). However, in June of 2013, the UK government announced that it was making plans to allow mitochondrial replacement trials with human embryos (McKie, 2014). Furthermore, in February of 2014, the UK’s Department of Health began a three-month consultation on mitochondrial replacement in which they asked for the public’s opinion on the regulations surrounding mitochondrial replacement that had been drafted by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Association (HFEA). Across the Atlantic, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Cellular, Tissue, and Gene Therapy Advisory Committee held a meeting to discuss the modification of oocytes for the prevention of transmitted mitochondrial disease (FDA, 2014). Although the FDA Advisory Committee has not moved to approve the implantation of genetically modified embryos, the UK’s consultation on public opinion revealed overwhelming support for the use of mitochondrial replacement as a prevention method for mitochondrial disease (HFEA, 2014). If the draft regulations are put into place, the UK’s move to lift the ban on implantation could set the precedent for future instances of human genetic engineering.
Thus, a controversy was born. For our Capstone’s controversy, four Human Biology and Society students at the University of California, Los Angeles campus have decided to delve deep into the clouded rhetoric surrounding mitochondrial replacement. With the help of a ‘What If’ scenario, our Voter’s Guide to Prop 44 highlights the need for an interdisciplinary approach and explores the possible benefits and consequences of mitochondrial replacement. While this procedure responds to a debilitative disease and could successfully prevent transmission, we urge the voters to educate themselves and consider the possible Orwellian consequences of playing God.
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