FDA Tells Scientist to Stop Making Three-Parent Unborn Babies

Bioethics   |   Micaiah Bilger   |   May 16, 2018   |   9:27AM   |   Washington, DC

A Manhattan fertility doctor has stopped creating three-parent embryos for now after receiving a warning letter from the federal government last year.

The Daily Mail reports Dr. John Zhang, who runs the New Hope Fertility Clinic and biotech company Darwin Life in New York City, gained international attention in 2009 when he created and implanted a human embryo with genetic material from three parents into a woman’s womb.

His manipulation of human genes has caused massive controversy. In August, the FDA sent Zhang and warning letter telling him to stop genetically altering human embryos, which is illegal, according to the report.

“Such human subject research cannot legally be performed in the United States,” the letter stated. “Nor is exportation permitted.”

Zhang created the embryo in the United States, but the woman had it implanted in Mexico, according to the report. The woman carried genes that passed on Leigh syndrome to her children; she lost six babies before Zhang genetically altered her seventh child to edit out the disability, the report states.

Though he has complied with the FDA order, the New York City doctor also defended his experiments, saying: “My personal opinion is very simple. Any technology will eventually benefit mankind and should be allowed. Look at history: People were against antibiotics, general anesthesia, vaccines.”

Here’s more from the report about his 2009 experiment:

Zhang extracted the woman’s nuclear DNA, responsible for things such as physical appearance and other major traits.

He then placed the DNA into a healthy donor egg and fertilized it with sperm from the woman’s husband. They were able to give birth to a baby boy who did not have the Leigh syndrome.

‘If there is a gene which causes a problem, it would be washed out through natural evolution. Eventually, these kind of babies are not going to be born. That is how nature selects,’ Zhang said. ‘But if we can alter the gene, why can’t we alter it?’

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Zhang was soon dubbed the ‘fertility rebel’ by the journal Nature and the world of fertility medicine.

There are many ethically troubling issues with Zhang’s work, one being the destruction of one unique human life to create another.

Bioethics researchers Jennifer Lahl of the Center for Bioethics and Culture and Gene Tarne of the Charlotte Lozier Institute wrote more about these concerns in 2013:

… the procedure destroys two embryos in order to produce a genetically modified third one.  And because this is a new technology, there is no way of knowing what the impact will be on the child created through this experimental three-parent technique. The child would be born with the DNA from the father, the mother and the woman who donates (or sells) her egg.  This is human experimentation on progeny who are incapable of giving consent.

Moreover, the modifications made are germ-line, meaning they would be passed on to future generations; this has never been done before.  While proponents of this procedure justify this germ-line modification because it eliminates undesirable traits that may lead to disease (the mtDNA), doing so for the first time virtually invites eugenically motivated future germ-line modifications to insert desirable ones.  This would turn children into genetically engineered and enhanced commodities.