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Wednesday, March 17, 1999 Published at 12:44 GMT


Scientist hails birth of 'rat children'

Dr Severino Antinori defended the technique

By BBC Rome Correspondent David Willey

A controversial new method of in vitro fertilisation involving the use of tissue from rats' testicles has aroused widespread condemnation.

[ image: The answer for childless couples?]
The answer for childless couples?
Dr Severino Antinori announced that he has enabled four previously infertile men to father healthy babies by maturing their sperm with material from rats' testicles.

The sperm was later used to bring about pregnancy via in vitro fertilisation - conception in a test tube.

Three of the babies were born in Italy and one in Japan, he told doctors attending an international conference on assisted procreation in Venice.

Controversial doctor

Dr Antinori is a Rome gynaecologist who has been in the headlines before for helping post-menopausal women to become pregnant.

He has also expressed a desire to create the world's first human clone.

However, while his new technique may attract condemnation, it does not fall foul of a new draft Italian law that will limit artificial procreation to the use of sperm by a husband and no other donor.

[ image: The sperm grew to maturity in a rat]
The sperm grew to maturity in a rat
A Rome university professor, Aldo Isidori, said the technique involved maturing cells that do not mature naturally so it could create genetic abnormalities.

Other doctors also warned there could be unforeseeable consequences.

But Dr Severino defended his technique, saying he had matured the sperm in a test tube, while a colleague in Japan had used a live rat for the experiment.

He assured doctors there could be no transfer of disease or genetic change from rats to man using rat tissue as a culture medium.

Licence hurdles

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said the technology could not be used in the UK without passing several hurdles.

A spokesman said anyone wanting to use it would have to get:

  • A licence from the HFEA
  • Permission from the Home Office, as the procedure involves animals
  • Permission from the Department of Health's Xenotransplantation Authority as it involves placing animal tissue in humans.

He said: "Nobody has applied for a licence, but there would clearly be a range of issues we would have to consider (before granting one).

"These include both the safety and the efficacy and the risk of any harm to any potential foetus and child - we would have to be satisfied about all the scientific as well as ethical concerns that may arise."

'Fewer defects in test tube babies'

The Venice conference also heard a report from a Viennese fertility specialist, Dr Wilfried Fiechtinger, who runs a sterility clinic in the Austrian capital.

He said the number of malformations in test-tube babies born in Austria during the past decade is generally one-half of that observed in normally conceived babies - 1.5% instead of 3%.

The conference was organised by an association bringing together 5,000 fertility clinics operating in more than 100 countries around the world.

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