It looks likely that Britain may be the first country to allow creation of what critics call “designer babies” by use of DNA from “three-parents.” This controversial technique would eliminate the possibility of parents passing on rare genetic diseases to their offspring, the country’s top medical officer said.
“Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop these diseases being passed on,” Britain’s chief medical officer, Dr. Sally Davies, said in a statement on Friday. “It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can.”
Using this technique, two eggs are fertilized, one from the intended parents and another from the donor. A healthy embryo is created by adding the parents’ pronuclei (which contains genetic information) to donor embryo which is implanted in the womb. The other embryo is then destroyed.
British tabloids, in 2008, were quick to name the technique the creation of a three-parent baby. Researchers were quick to condemn the labeling which they said was inaccurate, given that the amount of DNA from the donor egg was trivial.
According to experts the three-person DNA would prevent a child from inheriting “debilitating and potentially fatal mitochondrial diseases” that are passed on from mother to her offspring.
Mitochondria are the cell’s power producers. They convert energy into forms that cells can use and give body its energy. They are passed from the mother through the eggs to the child. Defective mitochondria can result in a baby being deprived of energy, which can lead to muscle weakness, blindness, heart failure, and in extreme cases even death. According to reports, defective mitochondria affect one in every 6,500 babies every year.
Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the country’s fertility regulator said that public consultations, written submissions, and hearings held on the topic showed that a majority of people supported the new in vitro fertilization methods. HFEA also said there was no evidence that this advance form of IVF was unsafe.
However, some critics have expressed deep concern. Christian Medical Fellowship, a British charity organization, said the techniques were unethical.
“We do not consider that the hunt for `therapies’ that might prevent a small number of disabled children (with mitochondrial disease) being born justifies the destruction of hundreds if not thousands of embryonic human lives,” the group said. The organization further noted there were remaining concerns about the safety of the techniques.
Dr. Davis said there were “clearly some sensitive issues here” but said she was “personally very comfortable” with altering mitochondria.
One scientist, raising an opposing voice was Dr. David King, the director of Britain’s Human Genetics Alert. He said, “These techniques are unnecessary and unsafe and were in fact rejected by the majority of consultation responses.”
He added, “It is a disaster that the decision to cross the line that will eventually lead to a eugenic designer baby market should be taken on the basis of an utterly biased and inadequate consultation.”
One of the main concerns raised in the HFEA’s public consultation was of a “slippery slope” which could lead to other forms of genetic modification.
Britain’s NewCastle University is forging one of these three-person IVF groundbreaking techniques. Expressing his delight, Doug Turnbull, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research at the university, said this was excellent news for families with mitochondrial disease.
“This will give women who carry these diseased genes more reproductive choice and the opportunity to have children free of mitochondrial disease. I am very grateful to all those who have supported this work.”
Draft regulations are expected to be completed this year. A final version is anticipated to be debated and voted on in the British Parliament during 2014.
According to sources, similar research is going on in the US. Designer babies could result from three-parent DNA.
By Perviz Walji