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World's first genetically altered babies born

Some children born using the revolutionary treatment have been found to have genes from three adults
Some children born using the revolutionary treatment have been found to have genes from three adults  

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One child, two mothers

'The Little thing that we did'

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WASHINGTON -- The world's first genetically modified humans have been born.

Scientists say that over recent years as many as 30 babies have been born, 15 of them after having revolutionary fertility treatment at a U.S. medical institute.

But some scientists have criticized the treatment, labeling it unethical because it uses the genes of a second mother.

The technique -- which is called ooplasmic transfer -- involves taking the contents of a donor egg from a fertile female and injecting it into the infertile woman's egg along with the fertilizing sperm from her mate.

New Jersey's Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St. Barnabas has used the technique to produce the 15 babies. The oldest turns four years old in a month, said scientific director, Dr. Jacques Cohen.

The institute was the first to use the technique but another 15 babies have been born following the use of the technique at other facilities, he said.

The researchers believe the technique helps women conceive who have been unable to do so because of defects in their eggs.

I don't think this is wrong at all," Cohen said.

"And I think we have to look at the positive part here. I think this did work. These babies wouldn't have been born if we wouldn't have done this."

One child, two mothers

Scientists are worried about the process altering inherited genes
Scientists are worried about the process altering inherited genes  

But scientists have slammed the process because the method can add genes -- mitochondrial DNA -- from the female donor's egg into the mix of genetic material from the mother and father.

Tests have confirmed that two of the 15 babies produced by the technique at the institute were carrying genes from the birth mother, the father and the donor female.

Cohen wrote in the British journal Human Reproduction that this was the "first case of human germline genetic modification resulting in normal health children."

"Germline" refers to the genes a person will pass on to his or her children.

Altering inherited genes is especially troubling given so little is known about its impact, scientists have said.

"This news should gladden all who welcome new children into the world. And it should trouble those committed to transparent public conversation about the prospect of using 'reprogenetic' technologies to shape future children," said Erik Parens from New York's The Hastings Center in Garrison, and Eric Juengst from Cleveland's Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in the journal Science.

But Cohen countered: "There are different levels of ethics. There are people who are saying, 'Why would you do something like this without maybe hard proof that it would work?' That's one level of ethics.

"The other one is, 'Well, you're tampering with nature,' which is the same question you get when you deal with any form of assisted reproduction."

'The Little thing that we did'

Cohen has said the technique did not manipulate the genes, but just added innocuous extra genetic material.

"We haven't changed any genes," he said. "That's a huge step compared to the little thing that we did. But you could say there would have normally been mitochondria from only one source (the mother).

"Now there's mitochondria from two sources, and therefore there's two different types of mitochondria DNA there."

Mitochondria are minute structures that float inside the cell but away from the cell's nucleus, which is home to most genes.

The institute has used the technique on 30 infertile women. Seventeen failed to become pregnant and one become pregnant but suffered a miscarriage.

The remaining 12 women gave birth, with three of the women having twins.

Of the 15 babies produced by the technique used at the institute since 1997, 13 lived in the United States, one lived in Britain and another in France, Cohen said.

"So far, from what we understand, they are doing OK," Cohen said of the babies. "And those two that had the mixed mitochondria, they're doing OK, too."

No government money was used in the research, Cohen added.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Landmark gene studies released

Science Magazine
The Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St. Barnabas
Human Reproduction
The Mitochondria Research Society

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