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'Designer babies': FDA weighs controversial fertility method

What if you could create a healthy embryo free of genetic mutations? Medical breakthrough or slippery slope?
February 26, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
The United Kingdom made headlines last summer when government officials there said they would allow three-parent IVF testing. Using this method, fertility specialists can replace damaged DNA in a woman's eggs before a human embryo is formed. It's a controversial move the U.S. government is now considering.

What if you could create a healthy embryo free of genetic mutations, but it would require DNA from two women? Would it be a medical breakthrough or slippery slope? Those are just a few of the questions the Food and Drug Administration is considering.

Doctors could potentially wipe out a list of incurable, inherited disease, including muscular dystrophy, using the DNA from two women and one man.

"The idea you can make a fix before a baby is born so a couple can have a healthy baby is terrific," said Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News senior medical editor.

The procedure is sometimes known as three-parent IVF. It starts with a mother's egg. If there are problems with the mitochondrial DNA, doctors are able to lift the egg's nucleus -- with all the genes for height, weight, gender, eye color still intact -- and move it to a donor egg, one that has healthy mitochondrial DNA. That genetically modified egg could be fertilized with the father's sperm in a lab, and then it's just like regular IVF; the embryo is implanted into the mom.

Researchers in Oregon tried this with monkeys and it worked. They tried it with human eggs but didn't take the final step of implanting them. The process is controversial and doctors say there could be unforeseen risks in future generations.

"The idea that the change you make could lead to a birth defect that you aren't aware of or a problem in the next generation. How do you do the studies to even sort that out?" said Besser.

Experts also question whether this is a dangerous path to designer babies.

"Are you on your way to selecting characteristics in a baby and do we really want to go there?" said Besser.

Great Britain is expected to have its first three-parent IVF births in 2015, but it's really not on the immediate horizon here in the U.S. This week, scientists told the FDA further experiments could take decades.