Ethics of mitochondrial gene replacement is also ethics of acquired genetic inheritance Posted in British Medical Journal on November 19, 2010

Felix ID Konotey-Ahulu, Dr Kwegyir Aggrey Distinguished Professor in Human Genetics University of Cape Coast Ghana
Consultant Physician Genetic Counsellor in Sickle Cell & Other Haemoglobinopathies 10 Harley St London W1G 9PF

Annelien Bredenoord and Peter Braude (8 November) have placed readers of the BMJ in their debt not only by meticulously dissecting the ethical and other dilemmas associated with this particular frontier of genetic research and impending practice, but also by calling for “a transparent public debate” [1]. I join the debate by briefly commenting on (a) Consequences of mitochondrial gene replacement (b) Legality (c) Ethics (d) Informed Consent.
I coin the term “acquired
Annelien Bredenoord and Peter Braude (8 November) have placed readers of the BMJ in their debt not only by meticulously dissecting the ethical and other dilemmas associated with this particular frontier of genetic research and impending practice, but also by calling for “a transparent public debate” [1]. I join the debate by briefly commenting on (a) Consequences of mitochondrial gene replacement (b) Legality (c) Ethics (d) Informed Consent.
I coin the term “acquired genetic inheritance” which normally does not make sense, except that what we are talking about is “irreversibility of germ line modification” [1] which is passed on to offspring after offspring, not initiated genetically but instantly inherited through an acquired process. An enlightened offspring is one day entitled to ask “Why was such and such acquired for me and my future children?”, where “such and such” could be any unanticipated genetic defect resulting from the process.
The legal process that will allow mitochondrial gene replacement depends entirely on where this is done in the world. If the British Parliament votes for it then it will be legal; if not, it will be illegal to practise it in the UK . Laws are not static – one parliament may say “No”, while the next may approve. Society gets the law it deserves. “The deliberate creation of human embryos for research . . .is legally prohibited in many countries” say Annelien Bredenoord and Peter Braude [1], so one wonders what happens when the country is not democratic, and dictators can say what must happen and what must not happen, and to whom? Who enacted Germany ‘s laws during the Nazi regime? [2]
“Ethics” I once said at a Human Genome Diversity Project Symposium “is sometimes not the first thing considered in the excitement of advances in scientific endeavour” [3] but as the article of Bredenoord and Braude makes abundantly clear, what is considered unethical by one group of scientists makes others take a different view: “the deliberate creation of embryos for research should be allowed under strict conditions” [1]. But what are these “strict conditions” that Annelien Bredenoord and Peter Braude have in mind?
I was for many years on the Ethics Committee of a leading UK Private Hospital that gave In Vitro Fertilisation consultations. The Chair-person was a Judge who presided over 10 of us that included another judge, an Obstetrician Gynaecologist, 2 Family Practitioners, a Consultant Physician/Neurologist, a Rabbi, a Consultant Physician/Nephrologist, the Matron of the Hospital, and 1 African, myself (Consultant Physician/Genetic Counsellor). Many were the requests from clients who begged for things they wanted done, but which we turned down unanimously – requests that other Ethics committees in the UK might well have approved simply because they were not illegal. Twice a year we made trips to Cambridge to visit (now) Nobel Laureate Robert Edwards whom I mentioned recently [4] had convened a panel of 30 of us under the auspices of the World Council of Churches on 25 June 1973 in Zurich to thrash out the ethics of what he was then embarking on [5]. I wonder what Bob Edwards now makes of the galloping pace of what is happening at the frontiers of Human Genetics.
“A third question” asks Bredenoord and Braude “is how to guarantee adequate informed consent given the complexity of technical information, high uncertainty, and competing interests”? [1] Quite so! Leaving the UK aside and moving to the Third World scenario, we are told by the International Consortium sequencing 1000 genomes globally that “A thousand volunteers have already been recruited from Africa, Asia, America, and Europe” [6] and that the African volunteers who had given informed consent were the “Maasai in Kinyawa, Kenya”, the “Yoruba in Ibadan, Nigeria” and “Luhya in Wabuye, Kenya” [7]. I would dearly want to know how “the complexity of technical information” surrounding the genome sequencing exercise was explained to my fellow African natives. Of course we cannot check any details of what was communicated to them because the whole exercise was officially done “anonymously” [6 7]. Bredenoord and Braude have been impressively transparent in marshalling their theses but could we say that about some researchers who, denied the opportunity in their own countries to do forbidden research, would not hesitate to go to Guatemala with plenty of money in foreign exchange to move mitochondrial gene replacement from bench to the bedside? [8 9].
I myself am a bundle of funny genes, one of which is the Mendelian dominant extra digits [10], which (before the Swiss Basel missionaries went to the Gold Coast in 1828) some tribes east of us the Krobo people had considered so reprehensible that affected babies were drowned [10]. So appalled I was when I came to England to study Medicine to find that babies that would be born with the same sickle cell disease phenotype as 3 of my siblings were also recommended routinely to be aborted here legally that I later wrote to the BMJ:
“I was born in the Krobo tribe with extra digits – a Mendelian dominant condition with a 1% incidence at birth in Ghana . Had I been born a few miles south east across the Volta River , there would have been great rejoicing because local tribesmen had it that I was destined to be rich. If my mother had given birth to me a few miles north-west beyond the hills, I would not be here to write to you – I would have been drowned soon after birth. Fortunately the Krobo’s were neutral to extra digits but until the government forbade the practice some tribal elders took it on themselves to decide which genes ought to be allowed to survive!” [10]. I went on “Now some scientific tribesmen in the UK ” were similarly deciding which genes should be allowed to remain and which not [10]. Even those with sickle cell disease have been found in Ghana to have other genes which enabled them to achieve great things in life [11]. Some parents do not lightly consider having a baby with a known pathology, of course they don’t, but if the modern attitude is to go to all lengths, including irreversibly changing the germ line of future generations through replacing mitochondrial genes then many reasonable people will consider that a step too far. As regards the great importance of public debate on this vital matter I conclude with the words of a wise man, Sir David Weatherall FRS:
“Whether by opening up public debate about the long-term possibilities of genetic engineering we can prevent its gross misuse, either politically or in other ways, is for future generations to determine. But there is no reason for not trying. One of the major concerns about human genetic manipulation is that our track record in the ethical aspects of human genetics is not entirely reassuring” [12]. In any case, Africans are scared stiff of genetic and genomic studies practised on them however carefully researchers explain exactly what they are doing and obtain “informed consent”. [3]
Conflict of interest: Nothing to declare
Kwegyir Aggrey Distinguished Professor of Human Genetics, University of Cape Coast and Consultant Physician Genetic Counsellor in Sickle Cell and Other Haemoglobinopathies, 10 Harley Street, London W1G 9PF
1 Bredenoord Annelien L, Braude Peter. Ethics of mitochondrial gene replacement: from bench to bedside. BMJ 2010; 341:c6021 doi: 10.1136/bmj.c6021 Nov 8
2 Muller-Hill Berno. Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gipsies, and Others – Germany 1933-1945. [Translated from German by G R Fraser] Oxford , Oxford University Press, 1988.
. 3 Konotey-Ahulu FID. The Human Genome Diversity Project: Cogitations of an African Native. Politics and The Life Sciences (PLS) Volume 18 Number 2, September 1999, pages 317-322 [Symposium PMID: 12561789 PubMed indexed for MEDLINE]
4 Konotey-Ahulu FID. Genius of Nobel Laureate Robert Edwards goes beyond IV F. BMJ Rapid Response, 14 October 2010.
5 World Council of Churches. Genetics and the Quality of Life: Study Encounter Vol X, No 1 1974. Report of a Consultation: Church and Society, Christian Medical Commission, World Council of Churches, Zurich , June 1973, Switzerland (Chairman Dr Robert Edwards)..
6 Wise Jaqui. Consortium hopes to sequence genome of 1000 volunteers. BMJ 2008; 336: 237 (February 2).
7 Announcement: International Consortium Announces the 1000 Genomes Project. Major Sequencing Effort Will Produce Most Detailed Map of Human Genetic Variation to Support Disease Studies. (Tuesday January 22 2008).
8 Tanne Janice Hopkins. President Obama apologises to Guatemala over 1940’s syphilis study. BMJ 2010: 341. c5494 October 9, page 750.
9 Konotey-Ahulu FID. President Obama apologises over Guatemala syphilis study: International co-operative research in jeopardy. BMJ Rapid Response http:// Oct 17 2010.
10 Konotey-Ahulu FID. Ethical issues in pre-natal diagnosis. BMJ 1984; 289: 185
11 Amanor-Boadu Dorothy, Bruce-Tagoe Alexander, Konotey-Ahulu FID. The Third International Conference On The Achievements of Sickle Cell Disease (ACHEACHE) Patients, Accra – 19th July 2010. Accra, Adeko Limited. ISBN: 978-1-3927-8. [International Conference Centre – 22 pages]
12 Weatherall DJ. Ethical issues and related problems arising from the application of the new genetics to clinical practice Chapter 12 in The New Genetics and Clinical Practice D J Weatherall, Oxford , Oxford University Press, Third Edition 1991, page 362.
Competing interests: None declared

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