Mary Wakefield: Test-tube monkey business

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The Independent Online

Do you remember the pair of baby monkeys that became cover stars on Thursday? They were accompanied by headlines suggesting scientists had made a medical breakthrough, but it was the pics that stole the show – wizened little faces, Spock ears, pink tongues. But beneath their furry skulls, inside each cell of the GM monkeys lurked some very worrying news.

The story, from Nature magazine, was that scientists from Oregon have found a way of eliminating some of the inherited diseases that hang around in mitochondrial DNA, being passed like a cursed baton in the relay race of life, from generation to generation. These are nasty diseases, life sentences like Leigh syndrome, a neurodegenerative disease that robs kids first of motor control. The test-tube monkeys, born with substitute DNA, mean, say their proud creators, that human parents will be able to have risk-free babies. Not in the distant future, but soon – in a just few years' time. The treatment probably won't be available in America, where the FDA are nervy about genetic tinkering, but our regulatory body, the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) is already very excited. They pride themselves on trail-blazing – clones away! – and the new embryology law, which comes into force on 1 October this year, will allow this research to continue, and eventually become standard practice in the UK.

But what no one mentioned was just how standard that practice might be. Almost one in every 200 births is thought to have a potentially pathogenic mitochondrial DNA mutation. That doesn't mean there's a one in 200 chance of a baby being ill, but it does mean that one in every 200 future mothers may feel too guilty not to let their eggs be tinkered with. So before we begin the trail-blazing, it's crucially important to look at the implications. Mitochondrial DNA exists not in the nucleus of a cell, but in the egg-white bit, if you like, around the outside. The way to get rid of the dodgy DNA is to take the healthy nucleus of the mother's egg and pop it into the emptied centre of another lady's egg. Just add sperm and bingo! A lovely safe baby. Here's one I prepared earlier. Except it'll be a safe baby with two biological mothers. There'll be "Mostly Mummy" who'll bring the child up, then, lurking in the background, there's the shadowy presence of "Mitochondrial Mummy". Perhaps, in the lonely twilight of adolescence, mt mum will take on special significance. As in: "My mt mum would understand." Or "I'm off to look for my MtMum."

Before the era of mitochondrial mummies, there's another crucial question, which is: what happened to Spindy? In the original report it says that those scientists at the Oregon National Primate Research Centre bred four Rhesus Macaques: Mito, Tracker, Spindler and Spindy. We have detailed reports on the cover stars, Mito and Tracker, Spindler is doing fine, but where's Spindy? Mewing pitifully from a mouth under his armpit perhaps. Seriously – it wouldn't be altogether surprising if Spindy didn't turn out quite right.

No one knows whether mitochondrial DNA and regular DNA from separate sources are always compatible. But what do I know? Why not just leave it to the experts? Well, because that last time a scientist tried to mess with mitochondrial DNA in the interests of wannabe mums, it all went a little wonky. Dr Jacques Cohen of New Jersey pioneered a treatment that "pepped up" eggs belonging to infertile women, by injecting them with "vigorous mitochondria" from younger ladies. But two of the 17 children conceived during this method had a heart-breaking abnormality called Turner syndrome, which leaves girls infertile and with innumerable defects.

I have a lot of time for mitochondrial DNA. I grew up in the shadow of the Y chromosome with a father who imagined that the inherited "Y" (passed down the male line) was God's sign that primogenitor was His plan. When I discovered that mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to daughter, and forms its own, unbroken matrilineal line back to our earliest ancestors, it was almost a religious experience. So it's really my deep respect for mitochondrial DNA that makes me so scared of all this monkey business. The proposed therapy will suddenly sever the ancient matrilineal line, introduce profound changes that will be passed on from generation to generation, from a mother to her children until the end of humanity.

Where's Gore Vidal when you need him?

No sign yet of any end to the great lament that began early Wednesday morning when the Western world learnt that Senator Ted Kennedy had died. It's been four days now and the papers are still brimming with articles about his charisma, his mix of vice and virtue – "very Kennedy" they say – his fondness for drink and also for orphans. So where is Gore Vidal when you need him?

Since the Kennedys first became American royalty, Gore Vidal, left, has been there on the sidelines, taking pot shots at the clan. As Jackie's step-brother he had special licence to deflate the Kennedy myth, and he did it with expertise and vim.

In an essay for Esquire magazine, Gore argued that the family machine had "convinced a bedazzled nation that once upon a time there was indeed a Camelot beside the Potomac, a golden age for ever lost unless a second Kennedy should become the president". What rot, said Gore, who thought Ted K a loser and hated Bobbie K even worse than he did his own mother.

When I met him last year, he was still at it: "Bobby was the biggest son of a bitch who ever came into American politics," he said and in his fury he nearly choked on a maraschino cherry. The feeling was mutual. When chastised for a plan to send blood to the Viet Cong, Bobby famously replied: "I didn't say send blood, I said send Gore." Gore was the spanner in the Kennedy works for half a century, and now that Ted's a goner he's outlasted all three of his nemeses. I hope he has the last word.

Americans back on our side

Just as I was going off Americans for being hypocritical (how dare they get huffy about al-Megrahi when they cheered on the IRA?), they've proved themselves to be on the side of the Angels. Half a million of them from a civil liberties group have written to David Miliband complaining about the extradition of Gary McKinnon, right. They've called the case "tragic" and complained that the Extradition Act is "lopsided". If even America thinks our extradition treaty is unfair to Britain, then surely it's time for our cowardly leaders to act. Alan Johnson – once touted as leader – has wimped out completely. Maybe it's time for Miliband to show he has leadership qualities after all.

Twitter will tell all

The older you get, the more frightening it is to hear about old people suffering horribly in care homes. This week's report from the Patients Association made particularly difficult reading: tales of sadistic nurses leaving patients to stew in wet beds. But – here's a hopeful thought – surely the internet generation will be protected from this level of neglect. They'll be able to twitter away to each other, comparing pictures of bed sores and naming and shaming Nurse Ratched types online.

Mary Wakefield is deputy editor of the Spectator