The world’s first baby to have been created using the controversial ‘three-parent baby technique has been born.
The technique, which mixes DNA from a donor egg with that of the mother’s and father’s, was legally approved in the UK last year despite widespread criticism.
This baby was born to Jordanian parents in Mexico, where, according to the US team that performed the treatment, “there are no rules”.
What is the three-parent baby technique?
The technique was invented to allow women who carry disease in their mitochondrial DNA to have a child without the disease. However, this raises several serious ethical concerns. When it was approved for use in the UK last year, Christian Concern’s Chief Executive, Andrea Williams, said that the UK had crossed a “huge ethical and safety line”.
Mitochondrial transfer can involve one of two methods. The first, pro-nuclear transfer, which the UK approved last year, involves fertilising both the mother’s egg and a donor egg with the father’s sperm.
Before the fertilised eggs begin to divide into early-stage embryos, each nucleus is removed. The nucleus from the donor’s fertilised egg is discarded, and replaced by that from the mother’s fertilised egg. This technique involves the manipulation of two embryos, resulting in the destruction of one.
The alternative method, maternal-spindle-nuclear transfer, for which the Jordanian couple opted, involves removing the nucleus from one of the mother’s eggs, and inserting it into a donor egg that has had its own nucleus removed.
The resulting egg, which has nuclear DNA from the mother, and mitochondrial DNA from a donor, is then fertilised with the father’s sperm.
Carried out in Mexico
The baby, a boy, was born five months ago. His mother, whose name remains anonymous, carries genes for Leigh syndrome, which is a fatal disorder that affects the developing nervous system.
Although the mother is healthy, her first two children died from the disease.
Dr John Zhang, and his team at the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City, carried out spindle-nuclear transfer for the couple in Mexico, as the technique is illegal in the US.
Zhang’s team created five embryos, only one of which developed normally. This embryo was implanted in the mother, resulting in a healthy boy who is now five months old.
Dr Zhang insisted that his team did the right thing. “To save lives is the ethical thing to do,” he said.
Others expressed excitement at the technique’s success.
“This is great news and a huge deal,” said Dr Dusko Ilic, a stem cell scientist at King’s College London. “It’s revolutionary.”
Many ethical concerns
Despite the praise of some scientists, the three-parent baby technique raises many ethical concerns.
Along with the destruction of embryos, one of the chief concerns is that the consequences of altering genetic material are unknown, and will be passed to future generations.
The latter would only apply if the child is a girl.
In this case, Zhang’s team avoided destroying embryos, but as five were created and only one developed normally, the others would have been discarded.
The resulting embryo was a male, so that the resulting child wouldn’t pass on any inherited mitochondrial DNA.
However, there is no way of knowing beforehand whether the embryo will be a boy or a girl. Questions must then be raised about what would be done with female embryos.
For more information about the technique and its ethical issues, read Christian Medical Fellowship’s free resource.
Possibility of disease
Another concern is that children born through this technique may still develop mitochondrial disease.
Zhang and his colleagues tested the boy’s mitochondria and found that less than 1 per cent carry the mutation carried by his mother.
It is hoped that this is too low to cause any problems, as it is thought to take around 18 per cent of mitochondria to be affected before problems begin.
Professor Bert Smeets, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, said that the team should monitor the child to make sure the levels stay low. He said that there’s a chance that faulty mitochondria could be better at replicating, and gradually increase in number. “We need to wait for more births, and to carefully judge them,” he added.
‘Other important questions remain unanswered’
King’s College London’s Dr Dusko Ilic said that there are other questions about the process that have not been answered.
“By performing the treatment in Mexico, the team were not subject to the same stringent regulation as some other countries would insist on. We have no way of knowing how skilful or prepared they were, and this may have been a risky thing to do.”
He went on: “Was this the first time ever they performed the technique or were there other attempts and they are reporting this one because it was successful?
“This and other important questions remain unanswered because this work has not been published and the rest of the scientific community has been unable to examine it in detail. It’s vital that that happens soon.”
Undermining of family and human dignity
In her statement last year, Andrea Williams said that creating a child with DNA from three parents undermines God’s pattern for the family.
“We have set out on a dangerous path, on which ‘designer babies’ and even eugenics could prove to be much closer than we pretend,” she said.
“We are ‘playing God’, undermining the very pattern for family and human dignity that God has given to us.”
Commenting on the news that the first ‘three-parent’ baby has been born, she said:
“This is a dangerous development. In this case, the team has taken some ethical precautions. However, there are still questions that have not been answered, such as whether the boy’s long-term health will be affected.
“Individual cases like this will surely lead to further experimentation and further ethical boundaries being crossed.”