Modern in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments are a boon to couples who might otherwise not be able to conceive naturally. They’re also the only guaranteed method by which couples who have inherited conditions or diseases can avoid passing them on to their offspring through a process called preimplantation genetic diagnosis. However current methods are limited to selection only, being able to differentiate between a set of potential embryos and selecting the most viable ones. New techniques have been developed that can go further than this, replacing damaged genetic material from one parent with that of another individual, creating a child that essentially has three parents but none of the genetic defects. Up until today such a process wasn’t strictly legal however the UK has now approved this method, opening the treatment up to all those affected.
The process is relatively straightforward involving the standard IVF procedure initially with the more radical steps following later. For this particular condition, where the mitochondria (which are essentially the engines of our cells) are damaged, the nucleus of a fertilized (but non-viable) embryo can be transplanted into a healthy donor egg which can then be implanted. Alternatively the egg itself can be repaired in much the same fashion before fertilization occurs. The resulting embryo then doesn’t suffer from the mitochondrial defect and will be far more likely to result in a successful pregnancy, much to the joy of numerous people seeking such treatment.
Of course when things like this come up inevitably the conversation tends towards designer babies, genetic modifications and all the other “playing god” malarkey that seems to plague embryo related treatments. For starters this treatment, whilst it does give the child three parents doesn’t fool around with the embryo’s core genetic material. Instead it’s simply replacing the damaged/non-functional mitochondria from one person with that of another individual. This will have no more influence on any of their characteristics than the environment they grew up in. Although, to perfectly honest, I wouldn’t see any issue with people going down to a deeper level anyway, for multiple reasons.
We’re already playing fast and loose with the natural way of doing things with the numerous treatments we have at our disposal that have rapidly increased life expectancy across the globe. If you indulge in such treatments then you’re already playing god as you’re interfering with the world’s natural way things get killed off. Extending such treatments to our ability to procreate isn’t much of a stretch honestly and should we be able to create the genetic best of ourselves through science then I really can’t see a problem with it. Sure there needs to be some ethical bounds put on it, just like there are for any kind of medical treatment, but I don’t see being able to choose your baby’s hair or eye colour being that far removed from the treatments we currently use to select the best embryos for IVF.
That’s the transhumanist in me talking however and I know not everyone shares my rather liberal views of the subject. Regardless this treatment is no where near that and simply provides an opportunity to those who didn’t have it before. Hopefully the approval of this method will extend to other treatments as well, ensuring that the the option to procreate is available to everyone, not just those of us who were born with genetic capability to.
I’m something of a quiet transhumanist, reveling in the ideas of elevating the human existence through the use of technology but staving off from raving about it whenever I get the chance. Whilst the idea of living longer appeals to many the idea of removing that inevitable end date, the one thing that has proved to be unavoidable for the vast majority of humanity to date, feels abhorrent to many and thus I leave the subject to one side. Still every so often a piece of science will make it into the mainstream media that brings with it some of the implications of transhumanist thinking and I feel compelled to comment on it.
A collaborative research effort between scientists in Australia and the USA has discovered a compound which, when administered to 2 year old mice, makes them appear to be as youthful as their 6 month old counterparts. The time line for the dramatic effects was also impressive with the reversal taking just under a week to occur. The compound acts on mitochondria, the energy generators of our cells, and appears to act directly on the muscle tissue of the mice. Whether that extends to other aspects of aging isn’t made clear (at least not that I can see, the article is behind a paywall) but the results have been impressive enough to warrant approval for human trials next year. Of course that means that a proper human model is some years off (with commercial production further still) but we should have some preliminary results in the not too distant future.
If this compound does pretty much exactly as advertised then it could mean a lot for our aging populace. Restoring muscle function is a key aspect in leading a healthier life as we age (which is why regular exercise is so important) and this could go a long way to making our golden years that much more enjoyable. At the same time it could also potentially help keep us in physical peak condition much longer, enabling us to be more active for an extended period of time. Whether this will translate to a bump in life expectancy and, more importantly, total longevity though will be something we won’t know for decades but it does sound promising.
Of course such life extension technologies always beg the question of how we’d deal with a larger population that’s living longer. Currently the world’s population is expected to peak around 2050 at roughly 8.3 billion, about 1.3 billion above what it is today. Technology like this wouldn’t immediately mean everyone suddenly starts living an additional 20~30 years, due to cost and adoption rates, so it’s far more likely that you’d see a gradual increase in average lifespan over the course of a couple decades. Indeed I believe this is true for all life extending technologies and thus their effects would be far more subtle and would be highly unlikely to lead to an unsustainable population of people who live forever.
It’s my hope that this line of research paves the way for more studies into what causes aging and what we can do to treat it. Whilst I will always support people’s decisions to live their lives the way they choose I believe that medical science can do a lot to help improve it and, one day, make death a choice rather than an inevitability.