Brave New World: UK Is First To Legalize Three-Parent Babies

It’s now legal in Britain to create a three-parent baby using healthy DNA from a donor to fix debilitating genetic problems.

U.K. fertility clinic regulator Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has approved the “cautious use” of the technique, developed by British scientists, to replace an egg’s defective mitochondrial DNA with healthy mitochondrial DNA from another female donor to prevent the child from suffering from genetic flaws. 

The baby would have two biological mothers and a father, which could potentially cause court challenges down the line over custody or inheritance.

HFEA has approved the technique in “certain, specific cases” only after all other options have been exhausted, such as screening for healthy embryos.

HFEA Chairwoman Sally Cheshire said in a statement Thursday that approval of the technique is “life-changing” for families. Parents who face a very high risk of having a child with a life-threatening mitochondrial disease “may soon have the chance of a healthy, genetically related child,” she said.

Fertility clinics can begin to apply immediately for a license to carry out the procedure and could being using it in early 2017, with the first three-parent babies likely to be born late in the year, reports The Telegraph.

Newcastle University, which pioneered the technique, is applying for a license Friday and already has parents interested in the procedure. Newcastle doctors are seeking women with healthy eggs for replacement DNA.

Newcastle hopes to treat up to 25 “carefully selected patients” a year with the technique and will provide long-term follow-up of any children born, professor Doug Turnbull, director of the university’s mitochondrial research center, told The Telegraph. 

The technique involves transplanting nuclear DNA — which encodes an individual’s characteristics — from a fertilized egg into a donated egg that has healthy mitochondria. Or the damaged mitochondrial DNA can be removed from an egg and replaced with healthy mitochondria.

Children born with faulty genes in their mitochondria, small structures inside cells that generate energy, can suffer a wide range of debilitating — and potentially fatal — conditions. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother.

Britain is the first nation to legalize the procedure, but the first baby in the world produced using the procedure was born this year in Mexico, which has no law prohibiting the technique. The procedure was conducted there by a physician from a Manhattan fertility clinic, NPR reported. The technique is prohibited in the U.S.

Some critics believe the health of that baby should be tracked for a longer time before the procedure is repeated.

At least 17 other children were conceived in New Jersey through “cytoplasmic transfer” using a bit of DNA from a third person before the technique was banned in the U.S. in the late 1990s.

Not everyone is excited about the development. Critics worry about the unforeseen consequences of major genetic changes being passed on for generations.

They also fear that Britain could open the floodgates to “designer babies,” created with particular characteristics and washed of genetic flaws or less desirable traits.

“This decision, to approve experiments on babies, using this dangerous and medically unnecessary technology, risks all our children’s futures,” said Dr. David King, director of the watchdog group Human Genetics Alert. “It opens the door to designer babies.” He accused scientists touting the procedure as “spin doctors” using the “emotional blackmail” of suffering babies to move the law.

But others support the technique as a way to help parents dogged by genetic issues to have a healthy family.

“This gives women who have mitochondrial DNA mutations reproductive choice,” said Turnbull.

Dr. John Zhang, the New York physician who arranged the Mexican procedure, told the New Scientist at the time: “To save lives is the ethical thing to do.”

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