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Science & Technology

Genetically Altered Babies



Science & Technology

 May 14 - 20, 2001

While the world debates and argues over human cloning, other medical procedures involving genetics are causing a stir. Mapping the human genome has opened up a whole new opportunity to change things that are, and make them into things that could be. The question still remains though, is man interfering where he should not? And what will the outcome be if we venture too far into the unknown? Where will we draw the line, and who will decide where that line is drawn?

The world's first genetically modified babies have been born after women unable to conceive naturally underwent a new fertility treatment used by scientists at The Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St. Barnabas Medical Center in West Orange, New Jersey. The institute has used the technique to produce 15 healthy babies, the oldest of whom turns 4 years old in a month, said Dr. Jacques Cohen, scientific director of assisted reproduction. He said his institute was the first to use the technique called ooplasmic transfer, but other fertility specialists had followed. He said another 15 babies had been born following the use of the technique at different facilities. Cohen dismissed criticism by some scientists who labelled as unethical a technique that in a sense leaves children genetically with two mothers. "I don't think this is wrong at all,'' Cohen told Reuters. ''And I think we have to look at the positive part here. I think this did work. These babies wouldn't have been born if we wouldn't have done this.'' In the technique, doctors take an egg from an infertile woman, the egg from a donor woman and the sperm from the infertile woman's mate. The doctors then suck out a little bit of the contents of the donor egg, called the cytoplasm, using a microscopic needle manipulated by tiny robotic arms. The cytoplasm is then injected into the infertile woman's egg along with the sperm to fertilize it. The researchers believe the technique helps women conceive who had been unable to do so because of defects in their eggs.

Their first success of having a child born with this cellular transfer technique was published in a medical journal in 1997. But an analysis of the genetic consequences of the method in two babies was only reported in March, in the journal Human Reproduction. DNA tests on two of them show they have a small number of genes that are not from their parents. The genetic status of the other 28 babies is unknown. The additional genes that the children carry have altered their 'germline', or their collection of genes that they will pass on to their offspring. Altering the germline is something that the vast majority of scientists deem unethical given the limitations of our knowledge. It is illegal to do so in many countries and the US Government will not provide funds for any experiment that intentionally or unintentionally alters inherited genes. The researchers, at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas in New Jersey, US, believed that some women were infertile because of defects in their mitochondria. These are tiny structures containing genes that float around inside the cell away from the cell's nucleus, where the vast majority of the genes reside. There can be as many as 100,000 of them floating in the cells cytoplasm. They are essential to cellular energy production and scientists suspect they have many other important but as yet unappreciated roles. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from generation to generation along the maternal line.

Infertility pioneer Lord Winston of the Hammersmith Hospital in London told BBC News Online that he had great reservations about it. "Regarding the treatment of the infertile, there is no evidence that this technique is worth doing," he said. "I am very surprised that it was even carried out at this stage. It would certainly not be allowed in Britain. "There is no evidence that this is a possible valuable treatment for infertility," he added. Lord Winston said that, although the number of additional genes involved was tiny, it was in principle the wrong thing to do. The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the body that monitors and regulates UK reproductive medical activities, told BBC News Online that it was aware of the technique but had decided not to allow it in the UK because of its uncertainties and the possible alteration of the human germline. The HFEA said it was an unwelcome development that "adds additional concern" to their worries. US researchers have also criticized the production of genetically altered children. "This news should gladden all who welcome new children into the world. And it should trouble those committed to transparent public conversation about the prospect of using 'reprogenetic' technologies to shape future children,'' said Erik Parens of The Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, and Eric Juengst of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in a commentary in the journal Science. But Cohen countered: "There are different levels of ethics. There are people who are saying, "Why would you do something like this without maybe hard proof that it would work? That's one level of ethics. The other one is, Well, you're tampering with nature, which is the same question you get when you deal with any form of assisted reproduction.'' The US Government Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee told BBC News Online that the researchers had carried out this work without government money. The committee said that in no circumstances would it consider any request for government funds that would result in modification of the human germline. Professor Joe Cummins, of the University of Western Ontario in Canada, told BBC News Online: "Now is not the time to bring in human germline gene therapy through the back door."