First Baby With Three Biological Parents Born Thanks To Banned DNA Technique Used To Prevent Leigh Syndrome

The first baby with DNA from three donors has been born in New York thanks to a controversial technique that has been banned in America. According to the New York Times, scientists and parents traveled to Mexico to complete the DNA work, which could not be done in America. The baby, born to a couple from Jordan, has been called — under protest from the scientists who completed the procedure — the first baby with three parents.

Dr. Richard J. Paulson, president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, called the successful birth “huge.”

The technique is controversial as it involves adding genetic material from a third person to correct DNA defects, but reproductive scientists have been eager to try it. The baby’s mother carries a rare genetic disease called Leigh Syndrome, also known as juvenile subacute necrotizing encephalomyelopathy. If passed on, it is typically fatal for a child within a few years. Dr. John Zhang, medical director of the New Hope Fertility Center in New York, described it as a terrible disease, as children gradually lose their ability to move and breathe.

Leigh Syndrome affects the central nervous system, and symptoms typically develop within a year of birth, and are almost invariably fatal before adulthood. The syndrome is caused by a mutation in the mitochondria.

Although still not fully understood, the mitochondria are organelles which provide power to cells.
Although still not fully understood, the mitochondria are organelles which provide power to cells. [Photo by wir0man/iStock]

In this case, the mother was a carrier, and guaranteed to pass her flawed mitochondria down — a death sentence for any child. Dr. James Grifo, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University, saw the couple and referred them to former student Dr. Zhang. Zhang had formerly attempted the technique in China, but although it technically worked, the twins he was working on were born prematurely and died.

According to the Dallas News, the couple already had one child terribly ill with Leigh Syndrome. The child had a tracheotomy and a feeding tube, and his parents had to suction his lungs hourly to keep him alive. The mother had previously suffered four miscarriages and her first two children had died — one at 6-years-old, one at only 6-months. But only a quarter of the mother’s mitochondria were flawed, and the prognosis was — theoretically — good. They were understandably hesitant, but ultimately decided to take the chance.

To “fix” the baby’s mitochondria, scientists ultimately withdrew the DNA from one of the mother’s eggs. They took a donor egg, and removed the donor’s nucleus DNA. They then implanted the mother’s DNA, minus the flawed mitochondria, which allowed the growing baby to instead incorporate the healthy mitochondria from the donor.

The proof is in the pudding; after a six month period to ensure that the technique had gone successfully, the proud parents and doctors announced a healthy 6-month-old baby.

New Hope Fertility Center has a clinic in Mexico, and Zhang suggested doing the work there; while not explicitly banned, the technique is essentially impossible to perform in America under current law. The FDA ordered clinics to file an application for it more than a decade ago — and congress later attached a rider making such research unfundable.

Research such as this may eventually lead to in-vitro treatments for other genetic disorders such as muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, and type 1 diabetes.

Fertility specialists hope that successful demonstration of the technique will spur reconsideration, and change prevailing negative attitudes about genetic therapy. While there are definitely cases where its morality has to be questioned, the decision to sentence a child to a painful death doesn’t seem to be one of them. But doctors say that the term “three-parent baby” is “caustic” and drives public opinion negatively.

“It degrades patients who need this.”

Dr. Paulson added that “mitochondria do not define who you are,” and said that the ban “is not scientific, not rational, not evidence-based.” He noted that the donor mitochondria have no impact on the parts of the DNA which define a person’s traits; they simply allow the child to grow up and avoid a terrible disease.

The DNA sequence itself remains untouched; the procedure bears more resemblance to a gut flora transplant than anything else.

Dr. Grifo noted that the groundwork has existed for years.

“We did all the foundational work to make it a possibility. We spent probably half a million dollars of a patient’s money who donated it. It is a technique we know could work.

“This could have happened in 2002.”

[Featured Image by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]