by: Nicole Pajer
Prior to trying to conceive, many aspiring parents get genetically tested to see if they are carriers for specific diseases that could be passed down to their offspring. This common blood test can give couples an estimation of the chances of giving birth to a baby with a certain genetic condition that they may have residing in their DNA. The screening can predict all sorts of conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Disease, and Fragile X Syndrome. If one of the parties is a match for a serious illness, the couple may want to explore other options for fertility, such as using an egg or sperm donor or adopting. But a controversial procedure is giving parents the potential to have their own child without the risk of passing along an ailment.
Though the practice has been tried and banned in the past, a Jordanian couple conceived what the public is referring to as “the three parent baby” several months ago with the assistance of the medical director at New York City’s New Hope Fertility Center. According to The Washington Post, the IVF technique that relies on small transfers of donor DNA was originally pioneered in the United States during the 1990s but was later banned after less than 100 babies were born from it. But medical advances have since been made and the recent Jordanian newborn is considered to be the first successful birth that has resulted from this new wave of “three parent” techniques.
To produce the healthy fetus, New Hope’s Dr. John Zhang performed the currently illegal procedure in Mexico, in an area that he deemed a having “no rules.” The parents of the new baby sought out the help of the fertility expert after finding out that the mother had mutated mitochondria. The couple had previous conceived two children, both of whom had been affected by her faulty DNA. One child died at age 6, the other at 8 months.
The process involved transferring DNA from one of the mom’s eggs and placing it into the egg of a healthy donor. According to The New York Times, the healthy donor’s nuclear DNA was first removed from her egg cell, thus leaving room for the egg with the healthy mitochondria and the mother’s DNA to be fertilized by the father. The experiment was a success and the mother delivered a healthy boy five months ago.
To date, the only place that has legally approved this procedure is the United Kingdom. According to New Scientist, who broke the news of the birth that used the technique, the British approved version is deemed a “pronuclear transfer” and involves fertilizing both the mother’s egg and a donor egg with the father’s sperm. Then, before the fertilized eggs start dividing into early stage embryos, each nucleus removed. Scientists discard the nucleus from the donor’s fertilized egg and replace it with that from the mother’s fertilized egg.
The news of the Jordanian baby has swirled around the Internet and led to many debates about the ethics behind the procedure. Zhang and his team have justified the process by revealing that, unlike the UK adaptation, he avoided destroying embryos. The doctor also used a male embryo so that the resulting child would not be able to pass on any of the donor’s mitochondrial DNA. He adds that his technique resulted in the first healthy baby the couple has conceived and that “to save lives is the ethical thing to do.”
Those that question the procedure have noted that five months post birth, the Jordanian baby has shown to have 1-2% of the mother’s damaged mitochondria in his body. What worries scientists is whether or not that percentage could increase as the baby grows older. Protestors of the procedure also point out the oddity of a child being conceived by more than two parents. But even Alana Saarien, a child born via a three-parent procedure performed in England, notes that though she technically has DNA from an external donor, she sees herself as only having two parents. “I wouldn’t consider her a third parent, I just have some of her mitochondria” she explains.
As a holistic fertility specialist, Dr. Julie Von is excited about the methodology. “In reproductive medicine, when a new innovation has been introduced, it is ethical to make this service available to everyone regardless of their moral opinion,” she tells SearchRx. She also notes that naysayers should tread lightly when judging the Jordanian couple’s tactics, unless they have had their own first hand experience with dealing with similar fertility issues. “I’ve found in my work that people have opinions about the extent they will go to within fertility medicine until they are faced with difficult situations,” she explains. “Most people change their minds about fertility therapies when they reach their last option.” Dr. Von adds that in her line of work, the most important thing to consider is the patient’s mental and physical health and making sure to do everything possible to relieve the stress and suffering of the process. “What is essentially important about the new breakthrough in 3-person IVF, is the alleviation of suffering, in many cases not only the parent’s but the future child’s,” she states, explaining that the procedure has the potential to drastically cut down on the amount of babies born with genetic conditions. “The main outcome everyone is looking for here is a healthy child. This should appeal to people’s sense of humanity more than personal morality.”
Regardless of the controversy of opinions surrounding the procedure, scientists are predicting that the process will continue to be perfected and the recent success of the “three parent baby” will open doors in the fertility industry in the years to come. “Science and medicine is an ever-evolving field. Once a new technology or practice has been introduced, it becomes a potential therapy for everyone,” notes Dr. Von.