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World's first 'three-parent' baby born - Expert reaction

World's first 'three-parent' baby born - Expert reaction
22 September 2016

Scientists in the US say a baby born in Mexico in April was the result of a new technique using DNA from three people.
The Jordanian parents contacted researchers at New York’s New Hope Fertility Center after discovering the mother had a rare mitochondrial disease – Leigh syndrome – which she had passed on to two children, both of whom died from the disease.

The method used – which took donor mitochondrial DNA and combined it with the mother’s nuclear DNA and the father’s sperm – is not approved in the United States, so the researchers went to Mexico.

The research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but appeared as a 'late breaking' abstract for an upcoming conference on reproductive medicine.
The SMC gathered expert reaction to the announcement, feel free to use these comments in your reporting. Further details are on
Dr Lynsey Cree, senior lecturer, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Auckland, comments:

"It is extremely difficult to comment on this as the details provided in the conference abstract are brief. Whilst this may represent a really exciting advancement for patients with mitochondrial disease, this study has not been subjected to the rigorous scientific peer review process required for publication in a scientific journal. This has sadly meant that several questions remain unanswered.

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"Interestingly 3 of the 4 embryos biopsied had abnormal numbers of chromosomes, which could either be due to chance or the manipulation process itself. Another important consideration is whether this is the team’s first attempt or whether all previous attempts have failed and therefore have not been reported.

"While this is a promising advancement it is vital that the ethical implications are considered and the techniques are appropriately regulated. Moving forwards it is also important to follow-up children born using these techniques to ensure that they remain healthy.

"Current New Zealand legislation prevents research on viable human embryos. Unfortunately, this means we cannot perform the necessary validation to be able to offer these techniques to New Zealand patients with these diseases."

Our colleagues at the UK and Australian Science Media Centres also gathered the following comments.

Dr Ainsley Newson, Associate Professor of Bioethics, University of Sydney, comments:
"This couple’s decision to use mitochondrial replacement – after four miscarriages and the deaths of two children – is unlikely to have been taken lightly. They have also chosen to use maternal spindle transfer (MST) as it may lead to less embryo destruction than other forms of mitochondrial replacement.

"Ethical aspects of this technique, such as the cost of the technology and the value of having a genetically related child need to be weighed against the value for this couple. But, the manner of this particular case is disquieting. The treatment location seems to have been chosen due to there not being any regulations in place. This is in stark contrast to the UK, where specific regulation was developed after a lengthy process of scientific, legal and public engagement. There has also been less research into MST than other approaches, raising safety aspects.

"While research on some forms of mitochondrial replacement in Australia may be possible under licence, the format of our cloning laws means that performing MST in either a research or clinical setting would be illegal. Given advances in this area, Australia needs to look at how its laws can keep pace with fast-moving technologies like this one."
Prof Justin St John, Professor and Director of the Centre for Genetic Diseases, Monash University, comments:
“It is very hard to comment as this is just a meeting abstract where all the important relevant information is not available.
“As this technology is controversial and a world first, I think the investigators should have submitted a manuscript for full peer review instead of announcing these outcomes in this manner. The review process would have ensured complete validation of the data and provided a tested platform from which to conduct a debate about the degree of achievement. As it now stands, there will be much conjecture. For example, there will be much discussion about whether sufficient tissues in the offspring were analyzed to draw reasonable conclusions about the low level of mtDNA mutation transmitted.
“Furthermore, as part of the peer review process, the genetic testing results would have undergone rigorous assessment and further analysis could have been requested to ensure no doubt existed. Until we know these outcomes, it is very difficult to comment.
“Nevertheless, if all the validations are sound, this represents a first for the treatment of some very serious disorders. However, extensive monitoring will be required as there has been limited testing of this technology in appropriate animal models.”
Dr Dusko Ilic, Reader in Stem Cell Science, King’s College London, comments:
“Without much ado it appears the first mitochondrial donation baby was born three months ago. This was an ice-breaker. The baby is reportedly healthy; hopefully, this will tame the more zealous critics, accelerate the field, and we will witness soon a birth of the first mitochondrial donation baby in the UK.
“But some questions remain. By performing the treatment in Mexico, the team were not subject to the same stringent regulation as some other countries would insist on. We have no way of knowing how skilful or prepared they were, and this may have been a risky thing to do. On the other hand, we have what appears to be a healthy baby. Because it was successful, fewer questions will be raised but it is important that we still ask them.
“Was this the first time ever they performed the technique or there were other attempts and they are reporting this one because it was successful? This and other important questions remain unanswered because this work has not been published and the rest of the scientific community has been unable to examine it in detail. It’s vital that that happens soon.
“So it appears to be a good end result. But it risks encouraging others to follow the example, as we saw with ‘stem cell tourism’. That could be dangerous as understandably impatient people pursue treatment in the very places where regulation is the least strict."

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