Scientists are calling for the immediate regulation of fertility clinics to prevent the birth of any future gene-altered babies, the first of which was reported earlier this year.
In March, a team of fertility specialists at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St. Barnabas, in West Orange, N.J., reported "the first case of human … genetic modification resulting in normal healthy children."
Fertility Method Creates Gene-Altered Babies
The group used a method that extracted cellular material from a donor woman's egg cell and transferred it into an infertile woman's egg. This material allowed the woman's egg to become fertile.
The donor egg contained DNA from mitochondria, little organs inside the cell that create the energy to do life's work. The group believes that problems with the mitochondria prevented the infertile women from becoming pregnant.
Mitochondria contain only about 0.03 percent of a cell's DNA, but that's enough that they can make copies of themselves when the cells divide. The other 99.97 percent of a cell's DNA comes from the nucleus and the 23 pairs of chromosomes.
The group says that transferring this mitochondrial DNA into the recipient eggs resulted in the birth of 30 babies, the first of which was born in 1997.
Extra Genes From Mitochondria
In March, the group reported for the first time in the medical journal Human Reproduction that genetic tests on two babies showed they had DNA from three parents: Two babies born with this method actually had mitochondrial genes from the donor mom, as well as chromosomal genes from the mother and father.
This extra-parental mitochondrial DNA could be transferred to the next generation.
Scientists in the latest issue of the journal Science are calling for the regulation of fertility clinics to prevent this practice from continuing.
"No research or clinical application involving humans should proceed that have the direct or indirect potential to cause inheritable genetic modification in either the public or private sector," unless it is reviewed by already existing federal regulators or a new body, wrote Mark S. Frankel and Audrey Chapman.
Both authors preside over public policy programs at the American Association for the Advance of Science, which publishes Science.
The two authors warn that efforts to modify genes transmitted to future generations could bring about both a medical and social revolution.
Social and Safety Consequences of Technology
"The dilemma is that inheritable genetic modification techniques developed for normal therapeutic purposes are also likely to be suitable for genetic alterations intended to improve what are already 'normal' genes," they write.
They warn that in a market economy the division between the haves and have-nots would increase if those who could pay could add "inherited advantage to the benefits of nurture and education already enjoyed by the affluent."
Safety concerns are also paramount, the authors say. It remains unclear how future generations with such genetic changes would fare.
"We have little experience and no evidence of long-term safety of inheritable genetic modification, whether intended or inadvertent," they write.
"There has not even been public consideration of how one would proceed in determining safety across generations. We should begin establishing an oversight process now so that we can make informed and reasoned choices about the future."