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World's first genetically altered babies born

Will Dunham / Reuters 4may01

WASHINGTON - The world's first genetically modified babies have been born after women unable to conceive naturally underwent a revolutionary new fertility treatment used by scientists at a New Jersey medical facility, a researcher said on Friday.

The Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St. Barnabas Medical Center in West Orange, New Jersey, has used the technique to produce 15 healthy babies, the oldest of whom turns 4 years old in a month, said Dr. Jacques Cohen, scientific director of assisted reproduction at the institute.

He said his institute was the first to use the technique called ooplasmic transfer, but other fertility specialists had followed. He said another 15 babies had been born following the use of the technique at different facilities.

Cohen dismissed criticism by some scientists who labeled as unethical a technique that in a sense leaves children genetically with two mothers.

"I don't think this is wrong at all," Cohen told Reuters. "And I think we have to look at the positive part here. I think this did work. These babies wouldn't have been born if we wouldn't have done this."

In the technique, doctors take an egg from an infertile woman, the egg from a donor woman and the sperm from the infertile woman's mate. The doctors then suck out a little bit of the contents of the donor egg -- the cytoplasm -- using a microscopic needle manipulated by tiny robotic arms. The cytoplasm is then injected into the infertile woman's egg along with the sperm to fertilize it.

The researchers believe the technique helps women conceive who had been unable to do so because of defects in their eggs.

ONE CHILD, TWO MOTHERS

But the method can introduce genetic material -- mitochondrial DNA -- from the female donor's egg into the mix of genetic material from the mother and father. Tests confirmed that two of the 15 babies produced by the technique at the institute were carrying genetic material from the birth mother, the father and the woman who donated an egg, Cohen said.

The procedure, described in the British medical journal Human Reproduction, has raised ethics questions among some critics in the scientific community. Cohen and his colleagues wrote in the journal that this was "the first case of human germline genetic modification resulting in normal health children." "Germline" refers to the genes that a person will pass on to his or her children.

"This news should gladden all who welcome new children into the world. And it should trouble those committed to transparent public conversation about the prospect of using 'reprogenetic' technologies to shape future children," said Erik Parens of The Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, and Eric Juengst of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in a commentary in the journal Science.

But Cohen countered: "There are different levels of ethics. There are people who are saying, 'Why would you do something like this without maybe hard proof that it would work?' That's one level of ethics. The other one is, 'Well, you're tampering with nature,' which is the same question you get when you deal with any form of assisted reproduction."

"THE LITTLE THING THAT WE DID"

Cohen said the technique did not manipulate the genes, but merely added innocuous extra genetic material.

"We haven't changed any genes," he said. "That's a huge step compared to the little thing that we did. But you could say there would have normally been mitochondria from only one source (the mother). Now there's mitochondria from two sources, and therefore there's two different types of mitochondria DNA there."

Mitochondria are minute structures vital to energy production within a cell that contain genes that are located outside a cell's nucleus, home to most of the cell's genes.

Of the 15 babies produced by the technique used at the institute since 1997, 13 lived in the United States, one lived in Britain and another in France, Cohen said. He said the institute used the technique on 30 infertile women. Seventeen failed to become pregnant and one become pregnant but had a miscarriage, he said. The remaining 12 women delivered babies, with three of the women having twins.

"So far, from what we understand, they are doing OK," Cohen said of the babies. "And those two that had the mixed mitochondria, they're doing OK, too."

No government money was used in the research, Cohen said.

21:12 05-04-01

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