Mitochondrial Gene Replacement and Egg Manipulation: Research Ethics in the News

Researchers in Oregon have transferred DNA from the nucleus of one macaque monkey egg and deposited it in another egg prior to fertilization. The results? Baby macaques born free of inherited defects in mitochondrial DNA—including twins, Mito and Tracker. The full method is reported in August 26 online edition of the journal Nature. In the press release, one of the authors of the article, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, comments on a potential, future outcome:

In theory, this research has demonstrated that it is possible to use this therapy in mothers carrying mitochondrial DNA diseases so that we can prevent those diseases from being passed on to their offspring. … We believe that with the proper governmental approvals, our work can rapidly be translated into clinical trials for humans, and, eventually, approved therapies.

For better or for worse, the “proper governmental approvals” may have to wait for a not-so-rapid change in how the public (including many ethicists) weighs the benefits and risks of similar research with human subjects. Rob Stein in the Washington Post (Lab Produces Monkeys With 2 Mothers, August 27, 2009) provides a quick survey of what some well-known ethicists are saying about the research. David Mangus and Lori B. Andrews both note the potential complications in family law (including visitation rights for the mitochondrial “mother”). Mark Rothstein cautions “a facility might jump the gun and try to put it into use before safety has been established.” Cynthia B. Cohen reminds us: “When it is attempted in humans, some abnormal embryos are bound to result. If they are discarded, this will raise major ethical concerns for those who view human embryos as nascent human beings, and by some who do not.” And Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society, worries that the potential use of this treatment might result in parents selecting genetic traits for unborn children. In another news report Arthur Caplan has a similar response: “It’s a very exciting experiment that would give parents the option of being able to have their own genetic children…. It’s also the classic example of the road to hell is paved with good intentions” (Rob Waters. Gene Mix in Monkeys Fixes Defects, Opens New Ethics Debate., August 26, 2009).

Anticipating that the public might have some concerns about the progress of this research, the editors of the journal Nature published a brief overview (The ethics of egg manipulation) of the barriers to similar research with human subjects. Obstacles include: opposition to the creation of human embryos solely for research; obtaining eggs from donors (payment for donation is prohibited in most states, but not in New York … the editors think that payment is a good idea); and the public perception that a three-parent union is “unnatural”.

For his part, Mitalipov stresses the potential benefits of this research and notes “The only way to treat these defects is to replace the genes” (Mark Henderson, DNA swap could cure inherited diseases. Times Online. August 27, 2009.  Note: The Times also reports that similar research is underway at Newcastle University.). According to Nature News, others in the mitochondrial-disease community agree; Carlos Moraes, for example, comments: “There are costs and risks, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.”


Tachibana M, Sparman M, Sritanaudomchai H, et al. Mitochondrial gene replacement in primate offspring and embryonic stem cells. Nature 26 Aug 2009. doi:10.1038/nature08368


Richard Harris. A Potential But Controversial Fix For Genetic Disease. NPR: All Things Considered. August 27, 2009.

Richard Alleyne. Hereditary diseases could be eradicated before birth by ‘genetically modifying’ eggs. August 26, 2009.

Pallab Ghosh. Genetic advance raises IVF hopes. BBC News. August 26, 2009.

Other Research Ethics News

Peter J. Pronovost and Ruth R. Faden. Setting priorities for patient safety: ethics, accountability, and public engagement. JAMA 2009;302(8):890-891.

Sarah Arnquist. Research Trove: Patients’ Online Data. The New York Times. August 24, 2009.

Christine Kim and Jon Herskovitz.  S. Korea seeks 4-year prison term for stem cell fraud. Reuters. August 24, 2009.

Natasha Singer. Senator Moves to Block Medical Ghostwriting. The New York Times. August 18, 2009.

Ginny Barbour. Ghostwriting documents now fully available on PLoS Medicine website. Speaking of Medicine. August 21, 2009.

Michael Peroski. Commissions on a Mission: Bioethics Counsels Past and Future. Science Progress. August 17, 2009.

Marcy Darnovsky. What Kind of Bioethics Council Do We Need? Science Tells Us What We Can Do; Values Tell Us What We Should. Science Progress. August 17, 2009.

Nancy Walton. The persistence of the therapeutic misconception. Research Ethics Blog. August 14, 2009.

Mark A. Rothstein. Health Privacy and the Facebook Generation. Bioethics Forum. August 11, 2009.

Salley Satel. Clinical Trials, Wrapped in Red Tape. The New York Times. August 7, 2009.

Joan Rachlin. Who is Sally Satel and why is she saying those things about IRBs? Ampersand. August 25, 2009.

Eric M. Meslin. Should Bioethics Commissions Have More Authority? Bioethics Forum. August 4, 2009.

– J.O.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s