October 25, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

First 3-person IVF baby born via “rogue” experiment at Mexico clinic?

Today we got the first report of a baby being born via so-called “3-person IVF”, sometimes called 3-parent IVF, in which the DNA of three people contribute to an offspring.

Before discussing this further I have to emphasize that we need proof that this is indeed really a 3-person IVF baby via genetic testing. Until that data is released publicly we should all be cautious on this news. Apparently the clinic plans to present such data later.

Assuming it is a 3-person IVF baby, which seems most likely, I discuss the key issues below.

For the 3-person IVF baby, it is hoped to be free of mitochondrial disease (the whole point of doing the procedure), but there are serious risks here. The doctor doing this experiment was John Zhang of New York University and New Hope Fertility Center, but he did it in Mexico.

John Zhang holds the baby; New Scientist picture

I’m deeply concerned by this news.

The fact that Zhang went to a place where he reportedly himself said, “there are no rules”, to do this illustrates that this 3-person IVF procedure was not given proper regulatory and ethical oversight. It feels more like it was done in secret.

Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of The Center for Genetics and Society referred to this kind of thing as “rogue experimentation” in a press release. In a sense she’s right about this, in particular because the world’s experts are really still trying to sort out the core issues surrounding this kind of technology. It is an understatement to say this was jumping the gun. 3-person IVF is not permitted in the US due to safety concerns.

While similar work has been approved in the UK, it will only be done in the future under the strictest oversight and caution, and was approved based on much public deliberation. I even have some concerns on the UK work as I’ve written before on this blog, but they are being careful and open about it.  In contrast this reproductive experiment in Mexico seem reckless in my view.

The BBC has a quote on this development that captures some of the concerns:

“Dr David King from the pro-choice group Human Genetics Alert, said: “It is outrageous that they simply ignored the cautious approach of US regulators and went to Mexico, because they think they know better. Since when is a simplistic “to save lives is the ethical thing to do” a balanced medical ethics approach, especially when no lives were being saved?”

We need more information, but without any oversight will we get it and can we be sure it is accurate?

We are told that only one of five 3-person IVF embryos developed normally, which itself indicates this is not a very safe procedure.

What happened to the other four embryos?

While the baby boy appears healthy and I truly hope he is now and for the rest of his life, there are no guarantees and there are any number of problems that could arise later in life due to the DNA transfer at the heart of this experimental method. While the levels of mutant mitochondria are low and that is encouraging they could change over the course of the boy’s lifetime. Again, a reminder this is a living human experiment that is going to unfold over years and decades. It is also worth noting that this child is a genetically modified human being as a result of this technique. Are we all ready for that?

In the New Scientist piece on this development it says, “The team avoided destroying embryos, and used a male embryo, so that the resulting child wouldn’t pass on any inherited mitochondrial DNA.” This doesn’t make sense entirely. If four embryos didn’t develop normally, then they were presumably destroyed…or were they frozen? Although the fact that he is a boy means he cannot transmit mitochondria to his own children, it also raises questions such as what happened to any female embryos produced by this method that were “unneeded”? I guess they were destroyed. Is that OK? Yes? No? Who decides? It should at least be discussed in advance of plunging ahead.

What if this boy had developed problems later in utero? What would Dr. Zhang and the parents have done?

Was this the first attempt or did they try this other times and no embryos/fetuses developed normally?

Will this news lead many other parents and doctors to follow suit? I think so and that’s dangerous on many levels. This definitely shouldn’t be a race and I wonder if that could have been at play here too, as the BBC quotes an expert on that concern:

“Prof Alison Murdoch, part of the team at Newcastle University that has been at the forefront of three person IVF work in the UK, said: “The translation of mitochondrial donation to a clinical procedure is not a race but a goal to be achieved with caution to ensure both safety and reproducibility.”

This is just the beginning of these kinds of reproductive experiments and the birth of one apparently healthy boy from an unapproved experiment doesn’t prove much of anything about what awaits us.

For more thoughts on the very important issues here, please see my recent book GMO Sapiens where I provide more detail on human genetic modification by a number of methods including 3-person IVF and potentially in the future via CRISPR.

%d bloggers like this: