What should I do when the equivalent of the Surgeon General of the UK calls my concerns about something "bunk"?
It sure gave me some pause.
What's going on?
First, some brief background below and also here.
The UK is poised to legalize a technology to try to prevent mitochondrial diseases. That goal is noble. However, it isn't that simple. The technology has many risks such as, to cite just one example of many, the possibility of creating children with developmental defects plus it would create genetically modified human babies. They would have a nuclear mom, a nuclear dad, and a mitochondrial mom who gave her mitochondria (including the mitochondrial genome).
The debate over 3-person IVF/mitochondrial transfer technology has been getting more heated. Some of the proponents have really politicized this issue and even NatureNews has gotten in on the act with some extremely slanted supposedly news articles cheerleading the technology.
The epicenter for the discussion is the UK where the technology is part way through getting Parliamentary approval. In fact, it could be approved by the House of Lords as soon as tomorrow after it was approved by the House of Commons a few weeks back.
The FDA held a committee hearing on this technology in the US a few months ago and it could eventually be approved in the US in say 3-5 years if more data turn out to be more supportive. Very similar to the FDA, my view is also one that we need more data.
If ground zero on this debate is in the UK, why am I as an American scientist involved?
I happen to be one of the few scientific publicly outspoken opponents of approval of this technology for use now. Note again that I could eventually back it in the future, however, if more data supported safety and efficacy. My concerns relate primarily to the risks of creating children with birth defects and human genetic modification (a third person's mitochondria).
Even though I'm across the ocean from the UK, my position that we need more time and data and in particular an article in the UK press, which quoted me on my concerns, have ruffled some feathers in the UK
In fact, Professor Dame Sally C. Davies, the UK Chief Medical Officer (roughly the equivalent of the US Surgeon General) went so far as to call my assertion that 3-person IVF could yield children with a higher risk of cancer "bunk" in the House of Lords.
That's a strong word.
So, again, what to do? This was a few weeks ago.
I decided to write to her indirectly via a letter to Lord Alton, a member of the House of Lords also concerned about approval of this technology. I indicated in the letter why I didn't think my position was bunk and what were my concerns were on this experimental technology.
Now she has written a letter intending to rebut my concerns again. Lord Earl Howe also signed the letter.
She and I still disagree, which is not unusual in biomedical science, right? For context, as best as I can tell she and I probably agree on 99% of other issues.
In my view, this 3-person IVF mitochondrial transfer technology is basically a big, high-risk human experiment that might prevent some cases of mitochondrial disease, but then again it might do more harm than good.
It seems odd that given the high stakes here that this debate has become unscientific on some levels. Doesn't the scientific ethos include give and take and focusing on facts as well as what we do not know for sure? How can she know that this technology won't yield children with birth defects, neurological disorders such as autism, or children with higher cancer risks? Of course she cannot know that because this is a human experiment and frankly the data up until know has been very mixed.
Note: a version of this piece was posted on ipscell.com.