Three-person baby ‘race’ dangerous

Dr John Zhang holding the baby boy who was conceived thanks to the new technique that incorporates DNA from three people (Photo: BBC/ NEW HOPE FERTILITY CENTRE)

(BBC) The UK, which pioneered the advanced form of IVF, was the first country to introduce laws to allow the creation of babies from three people.

Yet the first baby was born in Mexico.

And despite the technique being designed to eliminate disease, it has been used as an unproven fertility booster in Ukraine.

Both countries have less fertility regulation than the UK.

How to make a three-person baby?

Three-person IVF was devised to prevent the repeated heartache of losing children to illnesses caused by defective mitochondria.

The tiny structures in our bodies convert food into useable energy and are passed on only through the mother’s egg.

Dr John Zhang holding the baby boy who was conceived thanks to the new technique that incorporates DNA from three people (Photo: BBC/ NEW HOPE FERTILITY CENTRE)
Dr John Zhang holding the baby boy who was conceived thanks to the new technique that incorporates DNA from three people (Photo: BBC/ NEW HOPE FERTILITY CENTRE)

Three-person IVF takes the DNA from mum and dad and puts it in an egg from a donor woman. The resulting child has 0.1% of its DNA from the donor.

Why make babies from three people?

The advanced form of IVF was developed at Newcastle University in the UK and the final safety checks were completed in June.

So the Mexico birth and the procedure being offered as a fertility treatment has caused concern.

“We appear to be in a race to the bottom,” warned Dr Marcy Darnovsky from the US Centre for Genetics and Society.

Criticising doctors offering the technique, she added: “They are ignoring ongoing policy debates and conducting dangerous and socially fraught experiments on mothers and children. And they appear to be actively seeking a media splash on the way down.”

“Use of these biologically extreme procedures for infertility is based purely on speculation.”

It is argued that some cases of infertility are caused by a “poor” environment inside the egg such as insufficient or old mitochondria or an imbalance in the chemicals necessary to trigger embryo development.

And that the three-person technique could overcome those deficiencies.


Dr Dusko Ilic, from King’s College London, said there was no way to stop IVF clinics offering the procedure.

While the UK was the first country to create laws to legalise three person IVF, it is legal by default in many countries with little-to-no regulation.

Dr Ilic told the BBC News website: “IVF clinics are jumping on the bandwagon and rushing ahead, whereas the Newcastle team did all the hard due diligence work.

“The major worry is how technically skilful these clinics are, what quality control measures are in place and what information they provide to desperate patients seeking help.

“Are those patients aware of all risks involved?”

For example in the Mexico birth – the details of the family and a photograph of the baby were made public without any consent.

James Lawford Davies, a partner at the law firm Hempsons, said: “One example of the way UK regulation protects patients is through the confidentiality which attaches to their identity, the details of their treatment, and their children.

“Any such disclosure would be a criminal offence in the UK.”

When the UK allowed the procedure to prevent inherited mitochondrial disease, it did not allow three-person IVF to be used in fertility treatment.

“There was little evidence at the time the law was being changed that the methods were likely to help infertility,” said Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute.

Such an untried form of conception was thought to be too risky – except in the case of mitochondrial disease where the harms were even greater.

Prof Lovell-Badge said the UK had a reputation for looking “deeply into the issues of science and safety” and that such procedures may be permitted in the future if they were shown to be safe.

He told the BBC: “We can’t control this in countries where there are few or no regulations and poor oversight.

“Unfortunately the clinics in such countries have become used to being unregulated, and it is the patients who are at risk of being duped into paying for methods that have little or no benefit or that are even harmful.”

Sarah Norcross, the director of the Progress Educational Trust, said fertility clinics had a reputation for “rushing” new techniques to patients.

She advised: “For British women who wish to avoid passing mitochondrial disease to their children, the temptation to travel overseas to access these treatments must be enormous.

“We would caution against this. At present, there are too many unanswered questions about what has been achieved – and how – for us to be confident of patient safety.’



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