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
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."