A Christian’s Response to Cytoplasmic Transfer
Supply and demand—it is the backbone of our modern-day economy. When the people demand something, industries supply that product, and in turn reap financial rewards. But what happens when that demand is no longer for a manufactured product, but instead is a human being? What happens when infertile couples begin demanding new treatments in order to aid them in their quest for a newborn? Oftentimes, scientific discoveries proceed at such a rapid pace that it is only after new technologies become available that we fully understand the physiological consequences of our actions. Such is the case with donor cytoplasmic transfer. Since its introduction in 1996, many infertile couples have benefited from this new technique, and numerous babies have been produced as a result. However, recently doctors have discovered that this technique inadvertently introduces new genes and thus may lead to chromosomal abnormalities.
With many infertile couples, the wife is able to produce eggs, but sadly they are unhealthy and often cannot withstand the manipulations required in fertility procedures. Fertility clinics are filled with the pleas of young parents who desperately want children possessing their own genes. One solution to that problem has been cytoplasmic transfer. Cytoplasmic transfer involves injecting a bit of cytoplasm from a healthy donor egg into the egg of an infertile woman before the egg is fertilized. Cytoplasm is a jelly-like substance that surrounds the nucleus of the cell and contains several components. One component that resides in the cytoplasm is the mitochondria (often referred to as the “powerhouses” of the cell—remember your high school biology?). Mitochondria provide energy to the cell to fuel its many functions. Thus, unhealthy eggs are infused with a shot of healthy cytoplasm. Women who produce eggs that are considered to be “poor quality” can undergo cytoplasmic transfer, which allows them the opportunity to have their own “genetic” children by boosting the health of their eggs. (A convenient way to visualize this is to think of the original mother’s egg as a wilted flower and the donor cytoplasm as Miracle GrowTM). By not involving donor egg or donor sperm, cytoplasmic transfer involves no compromise in the biblical standard for marriage and reproduction that God set forth in His Word. However, while the technique probably would ease some distress for infertile couples, a closer examination reveals some serious side effects.
In May 2001, biologists at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, reported that three of the 16 babies born through cytoplasmic transfer at their center carried mitochondrial DNA from the donor cytoplasm (see Martindale, 2002). That is, they possessed DNA from both the mothers and the donors. The babies reportedly are doing fine now, but scientists are concerned about incompatibilities between the recipient’s nuclear genome and the donor’s mitochondrial genome. Additionally, since the mixture of mitochondrial genes is passed down from the mother’s side, the altered genetic blueprint of such female babies could affect future generations. Clearly, this is not something that can be remedied easily with a pill or special diet. This genetic material is now firmly rooted in these children, and developmental problems could result later in life for these individuals.
In addition, among the 18 conceptions that were aided by cytoplasmic transfer at St. Barnabas, two resulted in Turner’s syndrome (a defect that occurs when one of a girl’s two X chromosomes is missing)—a disorder that often results in premature death. These two cases that occurred using cytoplasmic transfer demonstrate a six-fold increase over the natural rate, causing some experts to speculate on the safety of the fertility technique itself. While fertility clinics offer cautious optimism concerning this new technique, Christians should regard it as “science run amok.” Clearly, “demand” outpaced both scientific knowledge and safety in this particular procedure. Due to the genetic dangers involved, cytoplasmic transfer is an irresponsible choice for couples that want to have children and still adhere to the precepts in God’s Word.
Martindale, Diane (2002), “It Takes Three,” Discover, 23:55, January.