In September 2016 it was revealed by the New Scientist that 5 months previously, for the first time in its history, the world welcomed a baby boy born using a technique that incorporates DNA from 3 people.
Born to a Jordanian couple who had been trying for 20 years, the child was created using a technique that involves removing the nucleus from one of the mother’s egg cells, inserting it into a donor cell that has its own nucleus removed, and then fertilising it with the father’s sperm. The resulting egg, which has nuclear DNA from the mother and mitochondrial DNA from the donor, was used to avoid inheriting from the mother the genes for Leigh syndrome, a fatal disorder that affects the developing nervous system, which is found in DNA in the mitochondria.
For the parents, who lost their first two children to the disease, and for embryologists, the achievement is being hailed as a milestone in fertility medicine, and should fast forward progress around the world say scientists.
Despite being praised as “revolutionary” by embryologists such as Dr Dusko Ilic, a reader in stem cell science at King’s College London, this new technique comes with its own fair share of controversy.
For one, Dr John Zhang and his team at the New Hope Fertility Centre in New York City, those who performed the technique, ignored cautious US regulations and eschewed frameworks set in place by instead going to Mexico, where Dr Zhang says “there are no rules”. Currently, the UK is the only country to have legally approved the technique, which, at the moment, is only to be used to help those suffering from potentially devastating inherited disorders.
However, could this technique be used in the future in unlimited ways? The fact that the couple in question chose specifically a male embryo, so that the resulting child wouldn’t pass on any inherited mitochondrial DNA, paves the way for a slippery slope of ‘editing human life’.
This is precisely where concerns grow, as this birth passes a fundamental scientific boundary of dramatically altering the DNA inherited by future generations. As the New Scientist was quick to note, these lasting genetic changes will be passed down through generations before we have a chance to find out if they are dangerous. Conversely, the newly reported birth has been branded “unethical, unwise, immoral” by Henry Greely, who directs the Centre for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, simply because the approach “hasn’t been sufficiently proven safe enough to try to use to make a baby”.
Being wary of this new genetic revolution and the unpredictable effects it may have in light of limited information is key (for both humans and non-humans), and moreover highlights the need for wider public information and debate on the topic, as well as scientific experimentation.