Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

A big month for genes

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Advances in reproductive technology are already being employed to try and avert problems with faulty DNA. File photo / Martin Sykes
Advances in reproductive technology are already being employed to try and avert problems with faulty DNA. File photo / Martin Sykes

It is hard to imagine the upshot of a cascade of discoveries currently being made about human DNA.

From a decade ago, when the human genome was first mapped, progress has been swift. This month, findings about DNA have taken us closer than ever before to understanding the genetic genesis of some pretty massive public health epidemics such as obesity and dementia.

At the same time, strides are being made in reproductive technology and are already being employed to try and avert problems with faulty DNA.

The first big breakthrough in April was the news that scientists had transferred DNA between human eggs, creating embryos that contained genetic material from two females and a male.

Hoping to combat diseases plaguing 1 in 200 people across the globe, including heart failure and diabetes, a team of scientists extracted a mother's and father's nuclear DNA, or "pronuclei" from a newly fertilised egg. The next step was placing it into a fertilised egg where the nuclear material was removed, but the second female donor's mitochondria remained (mitochondria is often called the cell's "batteries").

With this fusion, problematic mitochondria leading to these potentially fatal diseases can be sidelined, allowing women who know they carry these problems to have children with the help of reproductive technology - and 0.2 per cent of the DNA of another woman.

In the same way that genetically modified organisms strike fear into the hearts of some, this so-called "germ-line gene therapy" has lead some to warn that we do not know where fooling around with DNA will lead.

Others dislike the idea of letting the embryos develop to check for problems before destroying the material. (In the UK, where the experiments were held, it is currently illegal to create babies from embryos manipulated in labs.)

The second big news for genes in April revealed that there was a genetic basis for obesity and brain deterioration - and that olive oil can positively affect a certain part of the human genome, outlined in full here.

With more and more genetic pathways being identified as the markers of, or causers of, problems, it seems only a matter of time before we might be tinkering to try and eradicate these enormously common and costly diseases that blight the lives of so many.

The question is, as always, are we going to use this information responsibly? Is the scenario of "designer babies" just a luddite delusion or a real concern?

For parents of young children, there may eventually be newborn DNA registries to grapple with (as there are in some parts of the US), and these kinds of issues are those that should be concerning the bright thinkers amongst our lawmakers (rather than booze sheds for rugby fans).

It is not a completely far-out scenario that the genetic sequence of all newborn babies may one day be collected by default, ostensibly for genetic research and to understand future medical issues.

Is it right that authorities should have such information - and is it a national identity card by another name? Is it a violation of privacy or a genuinely helpful new database society can utilise?

Either way, it seems the future is here and science won't just stop at understanding genes, there will be a drive, as there always is, to improve the lot of human beings.

It's whether we have tried to understand all the outcomes of this amazing new world that continues to be a key question underlying each month's amazing new swag of discoveries.

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

Read more by Dita De Boni

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