Technology has helped countless people make the kind of families they want. But ever since Louise Brown became the first "test-tube baby" in 1981—she's what we now know as a baby conceived through IVF—controversy has wrapped itself around new advances like a tight swaddling cloth.
And so it is with the latest development in reproductive technology: three-parent babies.
The United Kingdom is the first country to approve research into a special in vitro technique that could prevent some types of mitochondrial diseases. The catch? It takes more than two to get the baby going. In addition to a sperm and egg donor, these future babies require the healthy mitochondria from a second donor egg. Healthier babies? For families whose kids have died young or developed a degenerative disorder like muscular dystrophy, this promising new technique is a win. For critics, it's one step closer to creating designer babies.
About one in 4,000 babies born in the U.S. will develop some type of mitochondrial disorder in their first 14 years of life. One in 6,500 babies in the UK are born with a mitochondrial disease. These diseases can cause suffering, early death and create large sums in healthcare costs.
How does this work? The new technique in question inserts the nuclear genetic material from a mother's egg or embryo into a donor egg or embryo that's had its nuclear DNA removed. The new embryo contains nuclear DNA from the father and mother with the addition of healthy mitochondrial DNA from the donor embryo. As such, the baby shares characteristics with the intended mother—just not her compromised mitochondria, which could have developed into diseases from heart disease, liver disease, loss of muscle coordination and other serious conditions like muscular dystrophy, according to a CNN report about the new technology.
The global community has long condemned altering human DNA.
Critics argue that the process will lead toward selection of certain other genetic traits to be inserted or removed from embryos, in some kind of effort to gain advantage or develop specialized offspring. They say that the ability to reduce the risk of mitochondrial diseases already exists through straightforward egg donation from women who do not carry the risk. They also point out that the global community has long condemned altering human DNA.
Even so, the scientific community is apparently divided about the technique. A panel of scientists and philosophers making up the UK-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which studied implications of this technique, concluded that, on balance, altering DNA for the purpose of living without devastating diseases is ethical. Those who consider this the next big step in genetics and reproductive technology are urging the UK to move cautiously and slowly.
Test-tube baby Louise Brown is now a mother herself and IVF is a common and expected part of the baby having conversation. More than 4 million children have been born thanks to embryo transfers. We hardly remember when it was a big secret unveiled to a gasping and incredulous public. Could DNA fixes eventually become just as blase?