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8-Humans: Genetically altered babies born

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-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  Genetically altered babies born
SOURCE: BBC News Online, UK, by Dr David Whitehouse
DATE:   May 4, 2001

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Genetically altered babies born

Scientists have confirmed that the first genetically altered humans have 
been born and are healthy. Up to 30 such children have been born, 15 of 
them as a result of one experimental programme at a US laboratory. But the 
technique has been criticised as unethical by some scientists and would be 
illegal in many countries, including the United Kingdom. Genetic 
fingerprint tests on two one-year-old children confirm that they contain a 
small quantity of additional genes not inherited from either parent. The 
additional genes were taken from a healthy donor and used to overcome their 
mother's infertility problems.

Germline modification

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 children were born following a technique called ooplasmic transfer. 
This involves taking some of the contents of the donor cell and injecting 
it into the egg cell of a woman with infertility problems. 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.

Two mothers

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 
maternal line. The US researchers wanted to supplement a woman's defective 
mitochondria with healthy ones from a donor. Having just tested the 
children born as a result of this procedure, the scientists have confirmed 
that the children's cells contain mitochondria, and hence genes, from two 
women as well as their fathers. Writing in the journal Human Reproduction, 
the researchers say that this "is the first case of human germline genetic 
modification resulting in normal healthy children".

'Great reservations'

British experts have severely criticised the development. 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 Fertilisation 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.

'Back door'

The HFEA said it was an unwelcome development that "adds additional 
concern" to their worries. US researchers have also criticised the 
production of genetically altered children. Eric Juengst, of Case Western 
Reserve University, said: "It should trouble those committed to transparent 
public conversation about the prospect of using 'reprogenetic' technologies 
to shape future children." 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."

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