Dr Duško Ilić, Reader in Stem Cell Science at King's College London, joins the program to tell us about this exciting area of medicine, and its revolutionary implications. Here are a few excerpts from the program:
What is this procedure?
“This procedure,” Dr Ilić said, “is for use on people who have inherited the so-called Mitochondrial Disease, which comes about when a very small fraction, only 30 genes that make enzymes that are used to make energy, of all the genes that we inherit from our parents, do not function properly….When someone is born with them, you cannot do much, the disease is incurable. There is nothing you can do. The only way is to prevent.”
In which countries has this procedure been approved?
“It is approved only in the United Kingdom, and still it is not performed here because the university which is working on it, Newcastle University, is waiting for a license from the government to perform the first such procedure. However, someone in the United States, where the procedure is not allowed, went to Mexico (where there are no regulations) and underwent the procedure there. Luckily, a healthy baby was born, but we don't know what quality control was used, what risks they are taking and so on.”
I suppose it is difficult for some non-experts to differentiate this new procedure from other kinds of human embryo modification which have been banned?
“We are talking about a few genes… mitochondria only make energy….imagine you are making a big chocolate cake, and in the middle of the work, you realize that you don't have enough sugar, so you knock on the neighbor’s door, and ask for a spoon full of sugar, and they give it to you. Who made the cake, you, or your neighbor?”
Surely once this technique is perfected; it could be used to isolate all sorts of cells, which could be deemed to be not very useful for the development of a healthy human being? What would be the difference between that and human embryo modification?
“This is very far from making ‘designer babies.’ From giving somebody the choice of their baby having blue eyes, being tall, or whatever. That is impossible, we are far away from that being possible. Because such genes are not single genes, they are a combination of genes, linked to their environment, and you cannot replace them.”
Could this be developed in a third world country crying out for investment?
“This is the major worry. This is a very technically demanding procedure. The team in Newcastle spent years working on this. They had to perfect the technology and find the best way to ensure that everything was done well, to put the future baby in the smallest risk possible….We don’t know all the information from the doctor who performed the procedure in Mexico. What precautions he took, how skillful he is. There is also news that it was performed in Ukraine too, there are two women pregnant there with modified eggs.”
What are the implications of this on the future of medicine?
“Mitochondrial Disease is incurable. There are thousands of parents in the UK who could benefit from this procedure. We will be able to eradicate this disease and help numerous families to have healthy children.”
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