A woman in Greece gave birth to a 2.9 kg baby boy through the controversial three-person conception method. This procedure involves combining the DNA and gametes of three people in the process of IVF.

Both the mother, a 32-year-old woman who has suffered four failed IVF cycles, and the child are said to be healthy.

Many experts are critical of this pregnancy as the three-person procedure was not initially meant to battle infertility but to target women who suffer from mitochondrial diseases. Some specialists in the UK believe this procedure raises several ethical concerns and that it should not be used simply for infertility not involving specific mitochondrial problems.

This experimental technique was performed in the Institute of Life in Athens, Greece. Doctors there are certain that this breakthrough is very significant in aiding families with rare genetic disorders although mitochondria donors need to go through extremely rigorous tests and physical exams to ensure the quality does not affect the embryo in any way.

Three person baby born in Greece

Not the first time

The baby was born on 9th April 2019 and is not the first child to be conceived through this method.

This technique was first used in 2016 in Mexico, where US doctors helped a Jordan couple with mitochondrial disease complications, achieve pregnancy.

It was again used in Ukraine in 2017 to help a 34-year-old Ukrainian lady suffering from “unexplained infertility”.

In the recent Greek case, the technique allowed both parents to pass on their genes to baby, albeit with a small contribution from the donor, who contributed some part of the genetic material. Less than one percent of the cell’s DNA is found in the mitochondria.

However, mothers with mutations in the DNA of their own mitochondria can certainly benefit from this new advancement.

DNA of an egg cell

In February 2018, the UK team that pioneered the technology were given permission to create the country’s first three-person babies for families with mitochondrial disease.

How are mitochondrial diseases prevented?

Mitochondria are parts of the cell that act as its powerhouse converting food into usable energy constantly. This energy helps the cells function effectively.

Mitochondrial diseases refer to genetic disorders that are caused by dysfunctional mitochondria. These disorders include muscular dystrophy, diabetes, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.

The defective mitochondria present in the mother’s DNA then gets passed on to the offspring. In many cases, children conceived do not survive due to the mitochondrial disease carried by the mother. This can be prevented by using a donor’s mitochondria which prevents the disease.

There have also been certain claims regarding the mitochondria playing a successful role in the pregnancy but there is no study to back the claim.

Spindle nuclear transfer study

This process involves the transfer of the mother’s nucleus to the donor egg, whose own nucleus has been removed. This egg is then fertilized with the sperm from the father. The resulting child will have the genetic material of both the mother and father with one per cent coming from the egg donor.

The fertility specialists of the Institute of Life collaborated with a Spanish company Embryotools to study the intricacies of the procedure.

 The study involved 25 women under the age of 40, who have infertility problems due to poor egg quality and who have had a few failed IVF attempts. This method of conception is still illegal in Spain which prompted the researchers to attempt to study further in Greece.

Trial leader Dr Nuno Costa-Borges spoke about how the study helped them in fighting infertility and is helping women get pregnant with their own eggs keeping maximum genetics of the parents intact. He said:

“Spindle transfer may represent a new era in the IVF field, as it could give these patients chances of having a child genetically related to them.”

The president of the Institute of Life added, “As Greek scientists, we are very proud to announce an international innovation in assisted reproduction, and we are now in a position to make it possible for women with multiple IVF failures or rare mitochondrial genetic diseases to have a healthy child.”

Three person IVF procedure

UK is the first country to make this procedure legal and ever since it has approved laws centering this technique of involving the DNA of a third donor, scientists at Newcastle University in England have been trying to incorporate this procedure into their research on helping women with genetic disorders and medical conditions that can be passed on to her child.

Co-author of the study Prof. Doug Turnbull said, “This study using normal human eggs is a major advancement in our work towards preventing transmission of mitochondrial DNA disease.”

Going through with the natural process of the nuclear transfer to avoid the woman’s defective mitochondria, the study involved studying 500 eggs from 64 candidates.

Small section of DNA from egg donor

The donor eggs underwent the procedure and were fertilized to form embryos. These embryos were not affected adversely in terms of growth and overall development and had a considerably negligible number of less than 2% of faulty mitochondria passed on to the child.

Although the risks regarding this technique are not completely identified yet, they are accepted as long as the genetic disorders can be avoided. The UK regulations state the need for complete disclosure when it comes to the side effects of the procedure to ensure that mitochondria donation is used in a structured environment and is carefully monitored for its risks and benefits.

Turnbull added, “Our studies on stem cells do express a cautionary note that it might not be 100% efficient in preventing transmission, but for many women who carry these mutations the risk is far less than conceiving naturally.”

Keeping aside the debatable aspects of this technique, it may not only help a large number of people conceive but also allows a woman suffering from genetic disorder to become a mother with her own genetic material.

Some doctors argue that the technique should not be used for regular infertility cases because fertility and disease prevention are morally very different, and there are concerns about the long-term effects of such technology.

However, given that IVF is only a 40-year-old industry, accepting or rejecting anything based on a few tests would be hasty. We encourage and support more research and development in the field to assist more couples in having babies that have healthy lives.

Do you think taking small bits of genetic material from an egg donor is unethical, if it allows you to have your own baby?
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