The United Kingdom is debating the merits of “three-parent embryos” to alleviate the burden of serious mitochondrial diseases. Scientists have reassured the public that this procedure will produce healthy children.
These assertions are largely speculative. However, something similar has happened before. About 30 children conceived from this technique have been born, 17 of them from an American IVF clinic between 1996 and 2002, when US government authorities put a stop to it. At the time the Saint Barnabas Medical Center, in New Jersey, called it “cytoplasmic transfer” and billed it as a way of jump-starting tired eggs. Twelve years after the US Food and Drug Administration recommended a retrospective study to see how these children have fared, the clinic is finally doing one.
Thirteen-year-old Alana Saarinen (pictured above with her parents) is one of those children. A godsend to her mother, who had a history of infertility, she is healthy, normal and cheerful. But her parents were never contacted about her progress. “I wish someone would, so they could see how healthy Alana is,” her mother told the London Telegraph.
The data will be of great relevance to the debate in the UK, although it will probably not be available before Parliament votes.
Jacques Cohen, the scientist who carried out the cytoplasmic transfer on the 17 IVF babies told the UK newspaper The Independent that no follow-up on the children had ever been done, despite the highly experimental and risky nature of the technique. “The current follow-up study is ongoing and results will be made available in a medical journal,” Dr Cohen said, although he is no longer working at St Barnabas.
Cytoplasmic transfer does differ from mitochondrial transfer. In the former, the mitochondria from both eggs are mixed together. In the latter, only the donor egg’s mitochondria are used. What little is known about cytoplasmic transfer is not promising. A report from the Food and Drug Administration in 2002 pointed out that there had been two instances of Turner Syndrome (one miscarried and one aborted) amongst 30 pregnancies. A paper by Cohen published in 2001 noted that an 18-month-old child had been diagnosed with a “pervasive developmental disorder”.
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