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Human Genetic Engineering: The First Genetically Altered Babies

written by: Balachandar Radhakrishnan•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 8/31/2009

Though most would find it hard to accept that the existence of genetically altered babies is no longer a dream of sci-fi novels and TV shows, the reality is undeniable. Almost 30 genetically altered babies were born in the US at several facilities, of which 15 were born in New Jersey.

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    Genetically Engineered Babies - Reality or Myth?

    Not long ago, most people believed that genetically engineered humans were the province of science fiction or TV series like the X-files. That has not been the case lately however; genetically modified babies are a reality and though they might not have the super-powers of their science fiction counterparts, the scientific progress nonetheless marks a huge milestone.

    The first genetically altered babies were not an attempt to genetically engineer humans but rather a by-product of a fertility treatment.

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    Case Studies on Human Genetic Engineering

    Scientists at the Institute of Reproductive Medicine & Science, New Jersey announced in 2001 that they had successfully created 15 genetically altered babies as a part of a revolutionary fertility treatment. It was also reported by the Institute’s Scientific Director, Dr.Jacques Cohen that 15 other babies had been born at other facilities using the same technique. The procedure was a part of a fertility treatment where mothers with defective mitochondria, and unable to bear children, are treated with an “ooplasmic transfer" from a healthy donor and later fertilized with the sperm from their husband. Ooplasmic transfer is where ooplasm from the eggs of a fertile woman are transferred to the eggs of an infertile woman.

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    Germline Alteration

    The principle of the procedure is that the mitochondria in a host mother’s egg is defective, preventing her from having children. By the introduction of ooplasm, or the selective contents of an egg from a healthy donor to the host, the mitochondrial defect is overcome as the defective organelles are replaced by healthy ones.

    Mitochondria carry their own set of genes, distinct from the nuclear DNA, and tests confirmed that children from this procedure carried the genetic material from the birth mother, the father and the donor of the ooplasm. In other words the children had inherited an extra set of genes, and these altered the germline, those genes that they will eventually pass onto their offspring.

    As a matter of ethics any procedure that tends to alter the germline of human beings i.e. a change in the genetic material that could be inherited, is illegal in most countries and considered unethical by many; in a large part this is due to the unknown effects of such genetic modification.

    However, others point out that this procedure would not lead to 'designer babies' as the nuclear DNA, which is responsible for the traits we inherit (except those that are regulated by mitochondria genes) is not altered by this technology. Dr. Cohen asserted at the time that the procedure did not manipulate genes, it was simply the addition of harmless genes from the mitochondria.

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    References

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1312708.stm

    http://archives.cnn.com/2001/TECH/science/05/05/US.genes/index.html