BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

The BBC's Branwen Jeffreys
"Fertility research is always pushing at ethical barriers"
 real 56k

Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 20:57 GMT 21:57 UK
Couples warned over GM baby hopes
Baby generic
The HFEA says there could be a risk to future generations
Infertile couples in the UK have been urged not to pin their hopes on a new technique pioneered in the US that genetically alters human embryos.

Alison Murdoch from the British Fertility Society said she expected to receive hundreds of phonecalls after the bank holiday weekend from couples believing it could offer them a chance to have a baby.

She stressed that the latest findings from US researchers were purely "experimental" and far from proven.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the body that regulates fertility treatments in the UK, said earlier that it would be prepared to consider applications from scientists who wanted to use the new technique.

We mustn't allow this drive for a baby at any cost to dominate the need for safety, dignity and responsibility,

Ruth Deech
During the process, an infertile woman's eggs are injected with tiny structures called mitochondria that contain a small amount of genetic information.

US scientists say the procedure can also prevent certain diseases being inherited.

But HFEA chairwoman Ruth Deech stressed there was currently no evidence that the benefits of the treatment outweighed the dangers.

"There is no doubt now that some strands of DNA are carried over into the egg that creates this new baby. And there is a risk, not just to the baby but to future generations, which we really can't assess at the moment," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Ruth Deech, chair of the HFEA
Ruth Deech: Risk cannot be assessed yet
She added that any application to use the technique in the UK would be subject to the same rigorous checks as any other new fertility treatment and safety was the HFEA's top priority.

"What we mustn't allow is this drive for a baby at any cost - often fuelled by profit - to dominate the need for safety, dignity and responsibility," Ms Deech said.

Researchers, at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas in New Jersey, have confirmed that 30 children have already been born using this method.

But the highly experimental process, which some say means the babies effectively have three parents, has been criticised as unethical by some scientists.

'No evidence'

Infertility pioneer Lord Winston of the Hammersmith Hospital in London told BBC News Online that he had great reservations about it.

"Regarding the treatment of the infertile, there is no evidence that this technique is worth doing," he said. "I am very surprised that it was even carried out at this stage.

"There is no evidence that this is a possible valuable treatment for infertility," he added.

Lord Winston said that, although the number of additional genes involved was tiny, it was in principle the wrong thing to do.

An "unwelcome" development say some scientists
The technique involves introducing a small amount of cell material from a donated egg, in order to overcome the mother's fertility problems.

Women can be infertile if their otherwise healthy eggs are relatively inactive. To overcome this, scientists inject cellular material known as cytoplasm from a donor's egg.

Crucially, this will include mitochondria and their DNA. The US scientists used genetic fingerprinting techniques to demonstrate the DNA is passed on to the children.

The additional genes that the children carry slightly alter their germline, or collection of genes that they, in turn, will pass on to their offspring.

The researchers say the genetic changes are extremely minor and have no effect on the eventual child's characteristics.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

05 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Q&A: GM babies
04 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Genetically altered babies born
01 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Long road to inheritance
27 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Genetic revolution work begins
Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories