Medical dilemma of 'three-parent babies': Fertility clinic investigates health of teenagers it helped to be conceived through controversial IVF technique

Donor eggs could be used as a way of ensuring that women with mitochondrial defects do not pass on the mutations to their children

Science Editor

A private fertility clinic in the United States has launched an investigation into the health of 17 teenagers who were born as a result of a controversial IVF technique that produced the world’s first “three-parent” embryos more than 15 years ago, The Independent can reveal.

The technique – which the US government halted in 2002 – involved mixing the eggs of two women so that the resulting IVF babies inherited genetic material from three individuals in a similar process to that planned in Britain for women carrying maternally inherited mitochondrial disorders.

About 30 IVF babies worldwide are believed to have been born by the technique, known as “cytoplasmic transfer”, including 17 infants at the Saint Barnabas Medical Centre in New Jersey who, until now, have not been checked for any long-term health problems resulting from the technique.

How cytoplasmic transfer and mitochondrial donation work
Cytoplasmic transfer and mitochondrial donation
Click the image to view the full graphic
 

The findings of the follow-up will be keenly scrutinised by Britain’s fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which is charged with making sure that a similar technique called mitochondrial donation is safe.

“We do not know of any follow-up of children born as a result of cytoplasmic transfer but we would certainly want to know the results of such a follow-up,” said an HFEA spokesman.

The British government has said it intends to introduce legislation to allow donor eggs to be used as a way of ensuring that women with mitochondrial defects do not pass on the mutations to their children. However, like cytoplasmic transfer, it will result in IVF babies with genetic material from three people – the woman who donated the egg and the child’s two biological parents.

READ MORE:
'Three-child babies': A mother's view
Government accused of dishonesty over regulation of new IVF technique
This is a scientific breakthrough we should be celebrating
What's wrong with having three parents?

Scientists in the United States announced in 2001 that cytoplasmic transfer had produced the first “genetically modified” babies with DNA from three people but until now there had been no follow-up of the 17 children to find out whether they had developed any long-term health problems as a result.

The Independent understands that the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science (IRMS) at St Barnabas finally began a follow-up earlier this year, although it has not released any details of the study and refused to answer questions about the progress of the investigation.

“I appreciate your interest but we are not intending to participate in this piece that you are working on,” Cindy Lucus, director of marketing at the IRMS said in an email.

Any long-term health problems resulting from the technique could be embarrassing for the private IVF clinic, which began cytoplasmic transfer in 1996 as a way of boosting the chances of a successful pregnancy for couples seeking fertility treatment until it was stopped in 2002 after the US Food and Drug Administration intervened.

However, the findings would also be of intense interest to health authorities in both the United States and especially Britain where Parliament is about to decide on whether to make mitochondrial donation legal.

If legislation is passed, the first British child carrying the DNA of three people could be born as early as next year but Parliament will need to be reassured of the long-term health of the children.

Jacques Cohen, the scientist who carried out the cytoplasmic transfer on the 17 IVF babies when he was employed by the IRMS, said the follow-up began earlier this year and that it is being led by Dr Serena Chen, a fertility specialist at the IRMS. “Because the research team members accepted different positions elsewhere, no follow-up was conducted until this year. The current follow-up study is ongoing and results will be made available in a medical journal,” Dr Cohen said in an email.

Dr Cohen, who now works for another private fertility company, called Reprogenetics in Livingston, New Jersey, refused to elaborate.

“You should ask the doctors who are now in charge of the IVF team at Saint Barnabas Medical Centre. Dr Serena Chen is directing the follow up study,” Dr Cohen said.

It is not known whether all 17 teenagers have been located or whether the follow-up study is likely to be completed before Parliament is able to vote on whether to allow mitochondrial donation in Britain. Dr Chen did not respond to our telephone calls or emails.

None of the 17 teenagers have yet been checked for any long-term health problems resulting from the technique None of the 17 teenagers have yet been checked for any long-term health problems resulting from the technique (Rex)

Cytoplasmic transfer involves injecting small amounts of non-nuclear material, including the energy-producing mitochondria, from a healthy donor egg into the egg of a woman undergoing IVF.

The aim was to improve the success rate of IVF treatment, possibly by boosting the embryo’s complement of mitochondria, the “power packs” of the cells which carry their own genes separately from the chromosomes in the cell nucleus.

Although there are similarities with cytoplasmic transfer, the HFEA said that the two IVF techniques being proposed for mitochondrial donation in the UK are fundamentally different because they involve the replacement of all mitochondria in a mothers egg with the mitochondria of a donor egg – rather than mixing the two together.

When Dr Cohen’s team published a study in 2001 of two babies who were born with mitochondria from two different “mothers”, the scientists wrote that it was “the first case of human germ-line genetic modification resulting in normal healthy children”.

However, it later emerged that there were two pregnancies where embryos had a missing sex chromosome, known as Turner syndrome – one miscarried and the other was aborted. There was also a case where one of the babies who had developed a “pervasive developmental disorder” in the first year of life, Dr Cohen said. “Whether these anomalies were related to the procedure is unknown. The fact is that the parents could not become pregnant on their own or after conventional IVF. This could have also been the cause of the [Turner syndrome],” Dr Cohen said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Turner performing at 93 Feet East
musicReview: 93 Feet East, London
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Extras
indybest
Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Case Manager - Occupational Therapist / Physiotherapist

£28000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Content Manager

£26000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Content Manager is re...

Recruitment Genius: Senior .Net Application Developer

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee