1 baby, 3 parents?

A scientist works during an in vitro fertilization process.

Underscoring the division on a current global health controversy, a local fertility expert and medical ethicist have differing views on Britain’s move earlier this month that could allow scientists to create a baby from the DNA of three people.

The technique, which aims to eliminate genetic defects that can result in diseases, involves removing the nucleus DNA from the egg of the prospective mother and inserting it into a donor’s egg, from which the nucleus DNA has been removed.

The resulting embryo would have the nucleus DNA from its parents but the mitochondrial DNA from the donor.

Scientists say more than 99 percent of the DNA in the resulting child would come from its parents, with a tiny fraction coming from the donor egg.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons voted 382-178 in favor of legislation to license these experiments despite objections from several church groups, including the Catholic Church in England and Wales, which view the procedure as destructive to the embryos.

If approved in the House of Lords, which is expected to take a vote later this month, the technique would be legal in October and Britain would become the world’s first nation to allow genetic modifications in human embryos.

While the technology aims to liberate future generations from inherited diseases, critics say it crosses a fundamental scientific boundary and could lead to “designer babies.”

Dr. John Schnorr, founding partner of Coastal Fertility Specialists and a division director of reproductive endocrinology at the Medical University of South Carolina, says while the aim of the procedure is to eliminate one set of problems, it could cause another set.

“It would be very unique to have an individual who has DNA from three prior individuals instead of two,” says Schnorr. “We don’t begin to know the reproductive outcomes of that. It leads to challenges in the autoimmune system where your body starts seeing new proteins and new structures that it’s not used to seeing from the donor.”

Schnorr says that the procedure raises questions about inheritance patterns in the future and creates some ethical challenges.

“We really think this needs to be studied in a nonhuman, primate-animal model to see if it’s healthy and right to do before we take it to human beings,” says Schnorr, adding that the Food and Drug Administration shut down efforts to experiment with the technique nearly a decade ago.

Schnorr echoed concerns that the genetic modifications for mitochondrial diseases will lead to designer babies.

“Say we’re successful doing this. Maybe somebody comes in and someone wants a blue-eyed baby, or a blond baby, or one that is 6 feet tall and not 5-foot-2. One does wonder if this becomes the early part of a slippery slope where over time we create an ultra human race that has the genetic modifications we want.”

Meanwhile, Schnorr says the technology for better avoiding genetic disease already exists by using an egg donor.

“It (fertilizing an egg from a donor) results in a healthy baby, which should be our No. 1 goal. I realize our own genetic pull to become genetic parents — how we all have that drive in us — but at what risk do we convey to our offspring so that we’re able to put our DNA into that baby?”

“Do we really subject the next five generations to possible risks of mitochondrial inheritance problems and other things so we can put our own DNA into the child?”

Dr. Robert M. Sade, a distinguished university professor and director of MUSC’s Institute of Human Values in Health Care, says the fear and apprehension toward the proposed technology is typical and proven, in most past advances, to be unwarranted.

“I think people will be concerned about it because it’s something new and it involves reproduction. Everything that involves reproduction causes controversy. So I’m not surprised that there is controversy about it, but I don’t think it’s particularly dramatic or particularly dangerous,” says Sade.

Sade adds that he is pleased that Britain has taken a step to move forward into this area of in vitro fertilization.

“Usually what happens is that when new technologies (arise) that people are frightened by are finally adopted, they turn out to be generally beneficial,” says Sade, citing an array of examples.

“Organ transplantation, when it first started, was viewed by many people to be terribly dangerous and an invasion of Mother Nature that was intolerable. But transplantation now is widely accepted and beneficial,” says Sade.

He adds that the same goes for in vitro fertilization itself.

“When it started off, it was controversial and thought of as a terrible idea because of all the terrible things that it could lead to down the road. But, of course, none of them happened. Now we have thousands of women who have benefitted from in vitro fertilization.”

In the 1970s, Sade says there was widespread fear of experimenting with recombinant DNA and that a special commission was established to approve every experiment.

“Since then, we’ve had several hundred products (created from rDNA) that have been hugely beneficial, including human insulin, clot-busting enzymes, human growth hormone, hepatitis B vaccine and Factor VIII (for blood coagulation),” says Sade.

He adds that using DNA from three people for in vitro fertilization will cause “a lot of worry and hand-wringing,” but that he doesn’t see it as dangerous nor will it lead to anything dangerous.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.