Doctors who created the world’s first “three-parent” baby in Mexico were “sailing very close to the wind” and lucky to succeed, a leading British expert has said.
News of the birth of the boy, whose mother was treated by a US team in Mexico, made headlines around the world last year.
He was conceived from an egg containing DNA from his mother and father, and tiny amount of “mitochondrial” DNA from a third person – a female donor.
The aim was to prevent him inheriting defective mitochondria, rod-like batteries in cells, that could give him Leigh syndrome – a fatal nervous system disorder. The treatment was led by Dr John Zhang, from New Hope Fertility Centre in New York City.
Top stem cell biologist Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute in London, made his comments after details of the case appeared in the journal Reproductive BioMedicine Online.
He said: “It is of, course, good news that the woman being treated was able to have an apparently healthy child with no signs of mitochondrial disease, but from the paper it seems that in many respects Zhang and colleagues were sailing very close to the wind and that luck played a large part in the outcome.”
Prof Lovell-Badge criticised the American team for using “electrofusion” methods to transfer nuclear DNA that had been abandoned by other researchers because “they gave a high frequency of abnormal embryos”.
Part of the treatment process involved transferring nuclear DNA from the future baby’s mother’s egg to a de-nucleated donor egg.
This produced a donor egg housing nuclear DNA from the boy’s mother and the donor’s “healthy” mitochondrial DNA outside the nucleus. It was then fertilised by the father’s sperm and helped to develop into an embryo.
DNA in mitochondria play an important role in metabolism but do not affect appearance or personality.
Prof Lovell-Badge pointed out that a relatively high number of abnormal mitochondria were unintentionally carried over into the embryo, the only one of four progressing to the 200-cell “blastocyst” stage that turned out to be normal.
While faulty mitochondria remained well below the threshold for triggering disease, “it is at a level that is of some concern,” said the professor, who last week gave evidence at a Parliamentary select committee hearing on gene-editing.
He went on: “In the end they only had one normal-looking embryo that could be transferred into the patient.
“They were lucky that this was indeed normal and that it gave rise to a pregnancy. And they were lucky that the proportion of abnormal mitochondrial DNA remained relatively low in most tissues.”
He said his comments left aside “all the issues of consent and legality”.
Final stages of the treatment, including implantation of the embryo into the womb, were carried out in Mexico to avoid breaching US federal law.