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Thursday, 13 December, 2001, 11:38 GMT
Go-ahead for 'designer' babies
Hashmi family
The family want a new child who can help Zain
A ruling could pave the way for British couples to select an IVF baby who provides a cure for another of their children.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) says that, in some cases, it may be acceptable for embryos to be checked to see if they are a tissue match for an existing child.

This would enable blood from the new baby's umbilical cord to be used in bone marrow transplants.

This means that Raj and Shahana Hashmi, from Leeds, could now get the go-ahead to use only embryos that precisely match the tissue makeup of their son Zain.

He has thalassaemia, a blood disorder which could prove fatal without a bone marrow transplant.

As no match has been found either within his family, or on international bone marrow registers, the creation of a matching sibling is his only hope.

Despite this, the decision has provoked fury among "pro-life" campaigners, who say that it is wrong to have a child under such circumstances.

Gene disorders

In IVF treatments, a number of embryos are created using eggs and sperm taken from mother and father.

Normally, a few of the highest quality of these are selected and implanted.

We would see this happening only in very rare circumstances and under strict controls

Ruth Deech, HFEA
However, it is possible to take tiny samples from the developing embryos and test them for the presence of a gene which would cause serious disease - such as cystic fibrosis, and then only use unaffected embryos, which would ensure a child free from that disease.

This is called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Thalassaemia is one of the conditions for which PGD can be carried out.

In this case, the tiny samples would also be tested to find out which of them would be compatible with Zain - then only these would be used.

If a child is born, cells from the umbilical cord can be used as a transplant.

Case by case

The HFEA, which regulates the use of IVF embryos in the UK, has given the Hashmis the green light, but says any future applications will have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

And only those embryos already being tested for genetic flaws could be tissue typed as well, it says.

We dispute whether it is in the best interests of the child to be created as a tissue match for somebody else

Josephine Quintavalle, Prolife Alliance
Ruth Deech, who chairs the authority, said: "We have considered the ethical, medical and technical implications of this treatment very carefully indeed.

"Where preimplantation genetic diagnosis is already being undertaken we can see how the use of tissue typing to save the life of a sibling could be justified.

"We would see this happening only in very rare circumstances and under strict controls."

Limited circumstances

The effect of this ruling is to allow tissue typing of embryos - but only where PGD is also an option.

Other potential cases - for example, a couple who want to have a matched baby because their child has leukaemia and needs a bone marrow transplant - would not be covered by this ruling, because there is no PGD test for leukaemia.

The decision has infuriated pro-life campaigners, such as the Pro-Life Alliance.

Josephine Quintavalle, from the alliance, told BBC News Online: "The HFEA has to take the welfare of the child into account when they are making decisions like this.

"We dispute whether it is in the best interests of the child to be created as a tissue match for somebody else."

And fertility expert Professor Robert Winston, from Hammersmith Hospital in London, said that the ruling was wrong.

He said: "The trouble really is that this child as it grows up has been brought into the world because it is a commodity."

He said he feared the child would be obliged to give other stem cells to a sibling later in life - and said doctors should be focusing on finding cures rather than a solution which he felt had little chance of working.

Marrow concerns

However, the British Medical Association gave guarded approval to the ruling.

Dr Michael Wilks, chairman of its Ethics Committee, said: "We recognise that the HFEA ruling will be helpful to couples in a very limited and restricted number of cases."

But he added: "The BMA sees moral and practical differences between using umbilical cord blood for treatment which involves no discomfort or risk to the child and using the child him or herself as a donor which would involve physical risk to the child."

The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"In some cases it could cure those with terminal illnesses"
The BBC's Karen Allen
"Regulators will consider each case on its merits"
Regulator Ruth Deech and specialist Lord Winston
discuss the ethical dilemma surrounding the ruling

Gene rules
Should a life save a life?
See also:

01 Oct 01 | Health
Q&A: Test-tube lifesaver
04 Oct 00 | Health
'Designer baby' ethics fear
13 Jul 01 | Health
UK genetic screening to go ahead
12 Dec 01 | Health
'I want a baby to save my son'
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