Genetically Modified Human Babies.
On the 5th May 2001 the birth of the first genetically modified human babies were announced.
In America Dr. Jacques Cohen, director of Assisted Reproduction in a fertility clinic in West Orange, New Jersey, used a process of in vitro fertilisation that transferred cellular material from one ova to another. This was done for couples who had failed to produce viable eggs through the normal IVF process. The transfer of cytoplasm energises the eggs that have been previously reluctant to develop. In two out of fifteen babies produced through this process mitochondria were transferred and the two babies have mitochondria from both the natural mother and the donor mother. The presence of the mitochondrial DNA will in no way influence the growth and development of the baby. Mitochondrial DNA is used the cells for energy production.
The Doctor is reported as saying that he did not consider it as producing GM babies, but rather as a solution to the infertility issue that faces some parents.
Clearly the intention was to produce babies, and no attempt was made to alter the nuclear DNA of the cells.
What are the issues?
Is there anything wrong with the babies?
No, the babies are apparently healthy, and there are a number of them.
There was no attempt to control the composition of the genetic material. i.e. there was no attempt to add or remove particular genes.
General population reactions are indicated in a poll conducted by Sky Television on the day of the press releases (05.05.01). Response to the question: "Should babies have genes from two mothers?" yes=23% no=77%. No size of response was quoted, and neutral votes were not solicited."
Monday May 21st, saw the breaking of a story by William Lowther of Washington in the Daily Mail. It reports there had been other problems with Dr Jacques Cohen process of IVF. According to this article two foetuses produced by this process had genetic problems that caused natural loss of one foetus and another was determined to have Turner's syndrome (short, heart and kidney defects, passed on) and was aborted. The article alleges that "Extra genes from a female donor were inserted into their eggs before they were fertilised in an attempt to enable them to conceive." The article reports a geneticist from the US National Government's Institute of Health in Washington. He said, "It's a nightmare. It's outrageous that the genetic abnormalities were not revealed alongside the seemingly successful part of the this research." and further added, "They are playing games with the human genepool." Dr. Cohen is reported as saying, "Much of the hysteria about my new technique can be put down to differences in culture. Reproduction is a process which everyone feels emotional about."
From Midwest Centre for Reproductive Health. http://www.mcrh.com
A promising and controversial technology.
A growing opinion is that some IVF treatments fail because of poor quality embryos. This can be due either to Chromosomal irregularities which arise during the development of the egg and are irreversible, or because of the poor quality of the cytoplasm which could theoretically be corrected by donor cytoplasm.
Limited studies have been performed, and the long term effects of mixing cytoplasm are not known. This article is of the opinion that further research is needed before the technique gains further popularity with fertility clinics.
"Ooplasmic transfer in mature human oocytes," Molecular Human Reproduction, March 1998
From Sky News, the BBC & Reuters. (Reuters article by Will Dunham, 05.05.01 at 02.13am)
The technique used to produce the fertile ova is called ooplasmic transfer. It was carried out at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas Medical Centre, West Orange, New Jersey. Genetic tests on two one year old children were said to confirm that they contain a small quantity of additional genes not inherited from either natural parent. Dr Jacques Cohen says the centre has used the technique to produce 15 healthy babies, the oldest of whom will be four years old in a months time. He reported that another fifteen babies were produced by similar processes at other centres.
According to the article by Will Dunham the process is no intended to transfer mitochondria, but rather cytoplasm, which somehow triggers the infertile eggs to become fertile. Tests confirmed that two of the babies produced by this technique at the St Barnabas Centre had DNA that was from neither the natural mother or father. This has resulted in germline modification of the DNA of these children.
Writing in the journal Human Reproduction the researchers said that this "is the first case of human germline genetic modification resulting in healthy normal children."
The news presentation of the story has been inaccurate. My initial reaction to the stories in the papers and on the television was that the process always produced the germline modification. however the fuller story from Reuters seems to indicate that this is not the intention, but rather a possible consequence of the process at the current level of technology.
1. Dr. Anthony Daniels, Sunday Telegraph Comment, 6th May 2001. The rest of the article takes a wry poke at children who by the age of 1 week could have four mothers the mitochondrial mother, nuclear DNA mother, surrogate mother (if egg implanted for another), adoptive mother (if neither of the previous three want the baby). Which one is the real mother?