Ireland's top geneticist warns on ‘3-parent’ technique

John Zhang holding the world's first three-parent baby. Pic: New Hope Fertility Center

The country’s top geneticist has said the breakthrough ‘three-parent’ technique used by doctors to ensure a baby was born free from the genetic condition that killed his siblings could potentially help a small number of couples in Ireland.

However, Andrew Green, director of the National Centre for Medical Genetics, warned that the procedure, carried out in Mexico, was still new, untested, and unregulated.

He also said there was unlikely to be enough demand for doctors here to gain sufficient expertise in it, so couples may have to travel abroad to avail of it.

“It’s very early stages,” said Prof Green. “In humans, apart from the case in Mexico and proposals from the UK, as far as we can tell it hasn’t really happened. So it’s still at research level and is not an established technology. That carries risks with it.”

There was a flurry of excitement in the scientific world after details of the baby born five months ago were made public this week.

The boy was born to a Jordanian couple with the help of a US fertility clinic which carried out the procedure in Mexico where fertility activities are unregulated.

They had already lost their two daughters to Leigh syndrome, a rare mitochondrial disease that is passed on through parental DNA.

Doctors replaced the defective mitochondria in one of the mother’s eggs with mitochondria from a female donor before fertilising it with the father’s sperm and implanting it with a conventional IVF technique. So far, the child has tested negative for Leigh syndrome.

Fiona Rodgers from Donegal, who lost her two-year-old daughter to Leigh syndrome, said the breakthrough was welcome and she would like the chance to avail of it if she considered another pregnancy.

“I know there is a lot of debate around it. It’s very easy for people on the outside to have a high moral ground,” she told RTÉ Radio.

“But if you have lived with this or have lost a child and watched your child suffer, you ask is it ethical to bring more children into the world who are going to suffer in this way?”

Prof Green said the technique was mislabeled when it was referred to as producing a ‘three-parent baby’.

“It’s not really accurate because it implies there are three equal contributions when really there isn’t,” he said. “There are two contributions and a tiny part from a third party which probably hasn’t any major significance in terms of the person’s development.”

He also said that, as it was carried out for medical rather than social reasons, it should not create a major ethical dilemma. However, he stressed, there was no law to govern such activities in Ireland, despite the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction, on which he sat, being established 16 years ago and publishing its report 11 years ago calling for legislation to be drawn up.

Around one in 5,000-10,000 babies are born with a mitochondrial condition so there may be only a few in Ireland every year and Prof Green said the technique would only work in a small number of the many varied conditions that appear.

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