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The popular 1980s sitcom Three’s Company revolves around three single roommates: Janet, Chrissy and Jack. When Janet develops a sudden interest in having a baby, Jack and, Chrissy hold hilarious interviews, looking for a “father” for hire. If this sitcom took place today, Janet, Jack, and Chrissy could forgo the interviews and team up and to create a baby of their own.
We live in an age of mass customization—customized cars, customized homes, customized watches, and yes, even customized children. Termed “designer babies,” with the help of scientists, parents have been able to partake in inheritable genetic modification. Through genetic screening, embryos are selected for sex and screened for genetic defects or other disease-bearing genes.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration reviewed a new technique, known as three-parent in vitro fertilization, which combines the genetic material of three individuals to make a child free of genetic defects. The procedure uses a form of mitochondrial manipulation to remove unhealthy mitochondria carrying genetic mutations from the egg of one mother and replaces the mutated cells with the healthy mitochondria of a second mother. One father would donate sperm, containing 100% of his DNA because the mother, not the father, passes mitochondrial DNA.
The FDA is set to determine the scientific and technological impact of this new method. A key concern is whether it is safe to begin clinical trials on humans. Although the FDA has not yet been asked to discuss the legal implications, more than 40 countries have laws banning human gene modification to create inheritable traits in offspring. However, the United Kingdom—in which in vitro fertilization is more highly regulated than in the US—does not have any evidence deeming procedure unsafe. As a result, the UK is poised to draft new regulations with the consent of Parliament.
In the United States, the FDA has banned using this technique without its explicit permission. Although many in the scientific community tout the usefulness of this procedure, some fear that it will be abused by couples wanting to select benign traits such as eye color. In the most extreme form, it is feared that the process will be used to create a new breed of super intelligent children. Regulatory and legal concerns will likely focus on the limiting the use of this procedure and parental rights. For now, however, safety is the primary concern. Depending on clinical results, the era of designer babies may have finally arrived.
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