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
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
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.
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.
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".
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
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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