The latest revelation that American scientists have created the first babies carrying DNA from a man and two different women, through manipulating a woman’s ova, has caused the alarm bells to ring – momentarily – around the world.
The practice, used to boost the low success rate in IVF by introducing exoplasmic material from a donor woman into the ova of older infertile women. Such material contains DNA from the donor.
The procedure is banned by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, several states in Australia, the UK and the Council of Europe, because it is known to interfere with the genetic makeup of the offspring, with uncertain long-term consequences.
Already in use
It is, however, legal in parts of the US, and has apparently been used surreptitiously for a number of years. According to doctors involved in the experiment, the oldest child who has been born as a result of the treatment is now four years old.
Professor Alan Trounson, scientific director of the Monash IVF program, was initially critical of the technique used in the experiment. He told Melbourne’s Sunday Age that there had been no controlled trials in humans or animals that showed it to be beneficial. "The scientists in the area are generally very critical of a method that may not do any damage, or it might, but it’s unproven." (May 6).
A day later, however, while repeating reservations about the American trials, Professor Trounson said that state laws that ban research should be repealed, to allow scientists "to do experiments to prove exactly what we are talking about" (The Age, May 7).
Predictably, it was supported by Helga Kuhse, head of Monash University’s Centre for Human Bioethics.
The way in which medical research is hyped up was discussed by Professor David Danks, in an article in Human Gene Therapy magazine in 1994.
Professor Danks suggested that discussion of gene manipulation only fuelled media speculation and roused public anxiety. He also rejected the view that gene therapy would result in the correction of genetic disease in future generations.
He said that if the wild-type gene were introduced into the nucleus of an ovum, it could insert in any of the 23 chromosomes. The odds were more than 100:1 against the "correct" gene segregating with the mutant gene at meiosis.
To achieve heritable correction, he said, it would be necessary to achieve replacement of the defective gene by the inserted gene, and this had not yet been possible.
Professor Danks concluded that there is very little good that germline modification could do and a great deal of potential harm, and suggested that it would be best for society to forbid it.
The American experiments show that there is no limit to what some scientists will do. Only a few months ago, it was revealed that biologists working for a private company in Australia, Stem Cell Sciences, had experimented with inserting human cells into the ova of pigs to produce animal-human hybrid embryos.
There have been a number of occasions in the past when mankind has decided that certain forms of scientific experimentation should be discontinued. At the end of World War II, the world was so horrified by the abuses revealed in Nazi Germany and Japan that a ban was imposed on medical experimentation on human subjects; and euthanasia, which had been widely practised in Germany in the 1930s, was outlawed.
In the 1960s, a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was negotiated by the superpowers, in an effort to halt the weapons’ spread.
After the horrors associated with the use of poison gas in World War I, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which went into force in 1928, condemned the use of chemical weapons. And a recent international treaty was signed which banned the use of landmines.
It will be very difficult to put the biotechnology genie back into the bottle, but in this case, there is a relatively simple solution to the problem.
The principles which underpin embryo research need to be clearly stated, and effectively enforced in regulation. The starting point must be that human embryos are entitled to be treated with the respect due to human beings.
There should be no experimentation on any human beings without their explicit approval.
The Federal Government’s Gene Technology Act, which is due to come into force in July, could be amended simply to ban genetic manipulation in human embryos. As this Act operates on a licensing system, it would simply require licensed facilities to comply with its requirements.
When the Gene Technology Act was before Federal Parliament late last year, an amendment to outlaw cloning was proposed by Senator Brian Harradine, and despite the support of the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, was effectively vetoed by Health Minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge.
The American experiments, and the response by some of those involved in genetic research in this country, show that unless there is effective legislation at the Federal level, similar experiments will eventually be conducted in Australia.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council