Scientists Question Safety Of Genetically Altering Human Eggs

Up till now, all babies have had two genetic parents. That could soon change. // iStockphoto, Klöpper & Eisenschmidt GbR
Researchers say they can replace DNA in human eggs with genetic material from another woman to prevent devastating disorders in children. But big questions remain on safety and ethics.

A panel of government advisers has expressed serious concerns about a controversial proposal to allow scientists to try to make babies using eggs that have been genetically altered to include DNA from another woman.

Members of the Food and Drug Administration panel said they were worried that not enough research has been done to know whether the experiments would be safe.

"I think there was a sense of the committee that at this particular point in time, there was probably not enough data either in animals or in vitro to conclusively move on to human trials ... without answering a few additional questions," said Dr. Evan Snyder of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., chairman of the 25-member committee that met Tuesday and Wednesday.

Unlike most FDA advisory panels, this group did not take a vote on whether the agency should let the experiments proceed. A similar proposal is pending in Britain.

During the hearing, the panel heard from researchers at the New York Stem Cell Foundation, the Oregon Health & Science University and Newcastle University in England who have conducted preliminary research in animals and want to try the procedure in humans.

They argue it would help women with diseases caused by problems with a type of DNA known as mitochondrial DNA to have healthy babies. These conditions can be devastating, even sometimes fatal. The approach could also be used to help treat women suffering from infertility.

"We have developed a technique that would allow a woman to have a child that is not affected by this disease, and yet the child would be related to her genetically," Dieter Egli of the New York Stem Cell Foundation told NPR in October.

Several critics of the proposal told the panel that they feared the technique could introduce errors into the human gene pool, or even open the door to creating "designer babies" by letting parents pick the traits of their babies.

At the end of the hearing, the FDA panel outlined steps researchers might have to go through before they could do a clinical trial. That would include making sure the process was safe and ethical and would produce useful results. The FDA has not said when the agency might make a decision.

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