Rogue IVF clinics likely to be first to create GM babies, scientists warn

Expert warns about prospect of serious harm to children born at clinics in countries with few or no legal controls over IVF

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Rogue fertility clinics operating in countries with few or no legal controls over IVF technology are likely to be the first to experiment with a new gene-editing technique to produce genetically-modified babies, senior scientists have warned.

One researcher who advises the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in Britain said the prospect of rogue IVF clinics creating the first GM babies worries him because of the potential for serious harm to the children who are born as a result.

“I’m very, very concerned about this. This whole notion of rogue clinics is something that has occupied fertility science for many years where these clinics have cropped up in many different countries, including the US, which are offering treatments with no real basis in science and may be dangerous in some cases,” said Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem-cell scientist at the Crick Institute in London.

“You can quite easily imagine that if you were to apply these gene-editing techniques, then the places it would happen would have to be associated with IVF clinics. In the UK we are lucky to have good regulation but in many countries there is no regulation, or minimal regulation,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

“You can quite easily imagine a combination of egos of the person running the clinic and someone who wants to have treatment and has enough cash saying ‘I’ll give you $50,000’ or whatever – and that  scares me, it really scares me. It’s bad for the field,” he said.

The development of a powerful gene-editing technology called Crispr-Cas9 has transformed the ability of geneticists to make changes to the human genome.

One group at the Crick Institute has already been given approval by the HFEA to use Crispr-Cas9 to undertake genetic modification of IVF embryos specifically donated for research into the genes that are important for the development of the foetus in the womb – although experimental IVF embryos will not be implanted into the womb nor allowed to live beyond about seven days.

However, Professor Lovell-Badge and many others in the field are concerned the private fertility business will be tempted to experiment with Crispr-Cas9 and offer it as a potential treatment for couples with genetic problems that they do not want to pass on to their children, or as a way of offering genetic enhancements, such as taller stature.

Commenting on the fears, Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, said from London: “With the power of the market and the open information published in journals, I am sure humans will want to try to ‘enhance’ their children.”

Professor Francoise Baylis, a fertility ethicist at Dalhousie Medical School in Halifax, Canada, said the pressure to start using Crispr-Cas9 on babies will come as much from parents as from commercially-motivated clinics.

“It’s a very real worry many of the activities in the area of human reproduction have move forward without proper clinical trials, which has meant we don’t actually have data that is robust in the clinical context,” she told the meeting.