A healthy baby boy was born on April 6 in Mexico that has some in the medical community rejoicing and others concerned.
The divide is due to the method of conception: a three-parent technique called “spindle nuclear transfer,” the details of which were published Tuesday in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
The process involves adding a handful of genes from a donor woman to the mother’s egg and then fertilizing the egg with the father’s sperm to create an embryo, which becomes a baby.
The use of this reproductive technology was intended to prevent Leigh syndrome, a severe neurological condition that affects at least one in 40,000 newborns. The mother in this historic case previously had four pregnancy losses and had given birth to two children, one of whom survived less than a year and another lived only 6 years, both due to the syndrome.
For religious reasons, the mother wanted to use a technique that would not require the destruction of fertilized eggs, which an approved treatment in the United Kingdom would require. The three-parent technique was the solution.
A team of doctors, led by Dr. John Zhang, founder of the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City, went to Mexico to perform the procedure. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the technique, while Mexico is free of such regulations.
And therein lies the controversy. If you cherry pick countries because the laws are looser, you undermine scientific development under controlled circumstances and add risk to the patient.
Though billed by Zhang as a “first ever,” a different version of this same technique had been used by fertility clinics in the past, explained Professor Hank Greely of Stanford University, who specializes in the ethical, legal and social implications of new biomedical technologies.
“About a dozen such babies were born in the US in the late 1990s/early 2000s before the FDA — pushed, I think, by cloning concerns — decided that this procedure needed FDA approval,” said Greely, adding that the clinics who did this before have since stopped performing the procedure.
While in the past, the procedure was used to help women conceive and give birth to healthy babies in cases of infertility, the new version was created to tackle a specific problem: mitochondrial mutations.