We've seen genetically modified mosquitoes, genetically modified plants, and genetically modified cows, but could we soon be dealing with our own genetic alterations – genetically modified humans?
As the months and years pass, scientists seem to be getting closer to ‘manufacturing’ humankind, with some of the most recent ‘advancements’ revolving around a new approved drug therapy that is designed to ‘correct genetic errors’.
The disclosure that 30 healthy babies were born after a series of experiments in the United States provoked another furious debate about ethics.
The first baby with three parents could be born as early as 2015 after a landmark decision to move ahead on a controversial genetic treatment.
Britain could become the first country to sanction the creation of babies with three genetic parents, despite fears it might lead to ‘designer babies’.
The Government will publish draft regulations later this year that will bring techniques a step closer to giving women affected by devastating hereditary diseases the chance to have healthy children.
The techniques involve replacing defective DNA in the mother’s egg with material from a donor egg.
The resulting healthy child would effectively have two mothers and a father.
For the first time the ‘germ line’ of inherited DNA from the mother would be altered which, critics say, marks a turning point in the ethics of test-tube babies.
But the Government’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said the alteration did not affect fundamental DNA that determines an individual’s make-up such as facial features and eye colour.
She compared the new techniques to replacing a defective ‘battery pack’ in a cell that would virtually eliminate the chance of a severe disease in the child.
She said: ‘Scientists have developed ground-breaking new procedures which could stop these diseases being passed on, bringing hope to many families seeking to prevent their future children inheriting them.
‘It’s only right that we look to introduce this life-saving treatment as soon as we can.
‘What we’re going to do now is start to develop the regulations, to consult on the regulations, and then to take them into Parliament.’
If MPs approve the regulations at the end of next year, the first patients could be assessed and approved for treatment in 2015.
It is expected that between five and ten healthy babies with three parents could be born each year to couples who might otherwise face the heartbreak of seeing them severely disabled and often dying prematurely.
In these cases, a healthy child would inherit the parents’ nuclear DNA, along with mitochondrial DNA from a donor.
Dame Sally denied the UK was leading the way to designer babies. She said there was a ban on changing nuclear DNA which ‘I don’t see changing in the foreseeable future’.
She said: ‘I do think quite carefully about ethics, I always did as a clinician and I still do, perhaps because my father was a theologian.
'I am comfortable with this. I think we will save some five to ten babies from being born with ghastly disease and early death without changing what they look like, or how they behave, and it will help mothers to have their own babies.’
One in 6,500 babies is born seriously affected by a mitochondrial disorder which can lead to hearing and vision loss, heart, lung and liver problems, and bowel disorders. An estimated 12,000 people in the UK live with the diseases.
The move to consult on regulations which would legalise the technique comes after a consultation requested by the Government and run by the fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which found there was ‘general support’ from the public.
Many experts in the field support the techniques being actively developed at a new laboratory in Newcastle funded by the Wellcome Trust, as well as in the US.
Draft regulations which would permit licensed IVF clinics to offer the treatments to women with a family history of severe mitochondrial disease will be published later this year.
Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said the proposals were already causing worldwide concern.
She said: ‘This controversial announcement – presented simply as innovative genetic treatment when it is in effect an endorsement of highly contentious germ line modification of the human embryo – is hardly unexpected, given the enthusiasm already shown by both the Nuffield Council (on Bioethics) and the HFEA.
‘Our focus now turns to Parliament, where we hope that the proposals to create three-parent embryos will be voted down.’
Dr David King, director of Human Genetic Alert, added: ‘These techniques are unnecessary and unsafe.’