First cases of human germline genetic modification announced
British Medical Journal BMJ 2001;322:1144 12may01
Annabel Ferriman, BMJ
Scientists in the United States have reported the first cases of human germline genetic modification resulting in normal healthy children (Human Reproduction 2001;16:513-6).
They have created children with genes from three different people -- the children's parents and from women donors, part of whose egg cells were used in the in vitro fertilisation treatment. They admit that the resulting genetic modification could be passed on to future generations.
The scientists, from the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science at St Barnabas in New Jersey, said that 30 babies worldwide have been born as a result of the technique, known as ooplasmic transfer. It involves taking some of the mitochondria from a donor's egg cell and injecting them into the egg of a woman with infertility problems. The egg is then fertilised in vitro.
The researchers believed that some of the women were infertile because of defects in their mitochondria. Fifteen babies are believed to have been born as a result of the New Jersey programme.
Altering the germline is illegal in many countries, including Britain, however, and the US government will not provide funds for any experiment that intentionally or unintentionally alters inherited genes.
The scientists tested the blood of two of the resulting children, who had reached 1 year old, using genetic fingerprinting techniques, and they found that the children had mitochondrial DNA from the donor egg.
Their work was criticised by British experts in in vitro fertilisation. Robert Winston, professor of fertility studies at the Hammersmith Hospital, London, said that he had great reservations about it.
"Regarding the treatment of the infertile, there is no evidence that the technique is worth doing. I am very surprised that it was even carried out at this stage. It would certainly not be allowed in Britain." He added that, although the number of additional genes involved was tiny, it was in principle the wrong thing to do.
Mrs Ruth Deech, chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, said that no evidence existed that the benefits of the treatment outweighed the dangers. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, she said: "There is no doubt that some strands of DNA are carried over into the egg that creates this new baby. There is a risk, not just to the baby but to future generations which we really can't assess at the moment."
Any application to use the technique in Britain would be subject to the same rigorous checks as any other new fertility treatment, she said, adding that safety was the authority's top priority. "What we mustn't allow is this drive for a baby at any cost -- often fuelled by profit -- to dominate the need for safety, dignity, and responsibility."
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