Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques, the Mexican Case

cesar-palacios-gonzalezBy César Palacios-Gonzalez 

Earlier this week New Scientist broke the news that the first baby born after Maternal Spindle Transfer is already five months old, and even more, he seems to be doing well. Even when John Zhang’s team has achieved a world first, I agree with Dr. Alison Murdoch in that: “The translation of mitochondrial donation to a clinical procedure is not a race but a goal to be achieved with caution to ensure both safety and reproducibility”.

At the moment there is very little information regarding how all this went down, science wise, and for sure this instalment of the Scientific Congress of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine is going to be a really interesting one (I wonder if there will be any bioethicists around). A particularly salient feature of this news is that John Zhang’s team did not carry out the procedure in the US, but they went to México because, as Zhang is quoted saying, “there are no rules” in Mexico. I found such a quote really troubling, even if it was taken out of context, because amendments concerning assisted reproduction to the Mexican National Health Law are being discussed at the moment. As someone who works in the ethics of mitochondrial replacement techniques, and that was born and raised in Mexico, this whole story particularly worried me. The timing of the news could not have been worse for all those people in Mexico trying to get a scientifically informed and liberal amendment to the current National Health Law (yesterday I talked to some very distraught colleagues based in Mexico). It is surprising that this fact about the Mexican regulatory landscape was not taken into account by the New Scientist feature, and it is even more surprising that no news article or think piece has talked about it yet. Now, the amendment that at the moment seems to have the best chance of being approved is not only really conservative and discriminatory, as I have said here, but it is so poorly written that it interferes with other scientific areas. For example, it completely halts chimera research and human embryo research. The NIH moratorium on chimera research pales in comparison with this amendment. It truly seems as if it had been forged in the Vatican.

It is true that Zhang’s team did not break any laws, but it I think that, for practical purposes, there is an important difference between carrying out experimental techniques in places without regulations that are moving towards having them, and carrying them out in places with intentionally lax regulations. Why? Because making such a ‘stunt’ in a place where regulations are being discussed, and where there is no public debate regarding the technique employed, can have an adverse effect in assisted reproduction as a whole. For example, the technique used by Zhang’s team has already been wrongly portrayed in the media and this has fuelled anti-ARTs sentiment. You would be appalled by the inaccuracies and mistakes in Mexican news reporting on this issue (although it must be said that there have also been inaccuracies and mistakes in how it has been reported in the US and UK). It is as if the whole Dolly the sheep PR meltdown did not teach us anything. For the time being, Mexico fits in the category of “country moving towards having ARTs regulation”, and in a couple of days I will be able to tell you if there will be no more ‘three person babies’ in Mexico for a considerable time.

Finally, I also think that it is problematic that there has been an erasure of the woman who donated the egg from most, if not all, the news and think pieces. While it has been said once and again that the intending mother egg’s maternal spindle was rehoused in a healthy enucleated egg, nothing has been said about the donor. It is appalling to see that there has been no mention of just how important she was for this procedure to occur. In addition to this, we do not know if she donated the egg in Mexico, or if the donation took place in the US. Even when Zhang’s team has stated that they had IRB approval, it is important to remember that there are serious ethical questions that arise from egg donation that need to be answered (which I suppose will be answered at the conference?). Specially when all this is carried out in place where there are no specific regulations in place.

César Palacios-Gonzalez is a Research Associate at the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics, The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London.

You can find more on the ethics of mitochondrial replacement techniques here:

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