Top UK clinic applies to create 'spare parts' babies

The head of a leading British fertility clinic said last night that he planned to apply for permission to create children whose cells might be used to treat existing members of their family.

The head of a leading British fertility clinic said last night that he planned to apply for permission to create children whose cells might be used to treat existing members of their family.

Paul Serhal, medical director of the in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) unit at University College Hospital, London, said the birth in the United States of Adam Nash, who had been selected to match his six-year old sister so he could provide her with a life-saving transplant, was an impressive advance which deserved to be taken up.

As medical and ethical experts struggled to digest the implications of the latest development in reproductive genetics, three more families in the US were reported as being treated to produce tissue-matched embryos for existing siblings, and fertility clinics in Belgium and Germany were said to be actively exploring ways of using the technique.

In Britain, permission to use the technique can only be granted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which said yesterday it would assess any application on its merits. Mr Serhal said there were many sufferers in London from thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder similar to Fanconi anaemia, the condition threatening the life of Adam's sister Molly, which could also be treated with a stem-cell transplant from a newborn sibling. Genetic screening of embryos from affected couples combined with tissue typing could provide a source of cells for transplant.

Mr Serhal, whose unit is one of only five licensed in Britain for genetic screening of embryos, said: "At birth you could take the umbilical cord, which is a by-product, freeze the stem cells and if in the future the condition of the father deteriorates you can use the stem cells to cure the chap. You are not doing anything invasive on the child and you would otherwise throw the umbilical cord away. I would like to apply [to the HFEA] but I will have to convince my team first that this is the way ahead."

However, trickier ethical issues are in prospect. In the case of Adam Nash, the primary aim of IVF was genetic screening to ensure he did not also inherit Fanconi anaemia and the cell matching was a bonus to ensure he could help his sister.

Anver Kuliev, director of research at the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago which carried out the laboratory tests for the Nashs, said they had now received requests from families who had children with leukaemia, which is not inherited, who wanted embryos cell matched for compatability as a primary, not a secondary, reason so they could provide a stem-cell transplant. That would raise fears that embryos were being selected with the primary aim of helping existing relatives.

Dr Kuliev said: "If you combine genetic screening with tissue typing there is no ethical problem. But in these cases, we would not be combining them, and the cell matching would be the primary reason. That needs ethical approval. What is important is that this subject should be addressed."

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