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“World's First GM Babies Born”: 12-Year-Old Article Continues to Cause Confusion

Posted by Jessica Cussins on April 25th, 2013


An undated Daily Mail article that is actually over a decade old continues to spread misinformation about the current state of human genetic modification. In fact, the operations it describes were shut down by the FDA in 2001, and the specific techniques it refers to have been abandoned.

The article begins with the provocative statement, “The world's first genetically modified humans have been created, it was revealed last night.” There is no date anywhere within it, which has led to a great deal of confusion. Many understandably believe it happened last night given that today’s date shows up at the top of the page.

It is important to set the record straight and understand this history in context. This significant event made headlines when it happened. BBC News coverage of May 4, 2001 is here: Genetically altered babies born, and the CNN coverage of May 5, 2001 is here: World's first genetically altered babies born.

These reports, and the Daily Mail article, discuss up to 30 births that followed a process called ooplasmic transfer. Fifteen of these babies were reportedly born at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas in New Jersey under the guidance of Professor Jacques Cohen in an attempt to help infertile women have a child. Altering the human germline – something he was aware he was doing and in fact made a point of publicizing – was not of great concern to him.

However, many others were quite concerned. BBC News Online reported,

Altering the germline is something that the vast majority of scientists deem unethical given the limitations of our knowledge.
It is illegal to do so in many countries and…
The [US Government Recombinant DNA Advisory] Committee said that in no circumstances would it consider any request for government funds that would result in modification of the human germline.
In June 2001 the FDA communicated with the fertility clinics that were attempting ooplasmic transfer and told them to stop, indicating that such protocols would have to be undertaken under Investigational New Drug exemptions. The FDA letters cited concerns regarding the genetic abnormalities found in resulting children (including Turner’s syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder), the lack of oversight, the paucity of safety data, and the resulting permanent changes to the human genome.

Understanding this history is particularly important right now as the UK contemplates granting the world’s first regulatory approval for a variation of these techniques, mitochondria replacement, which would also modify the human germline. Biopolitical Times (1, 2, 3) and many others (1, 2, 3) have pointed out that mitochondria replacement is unneeded to prevent future children affected by mitochondria disease , would be extraordinarily risky for any resulting children, and would violate widespread legal prohibitions and a globally observed understanding against human germline engineering. 

Back in 2001 no one would have guessed that the UK would be the country to go against the worldwide consensus against such human experimentation. Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, told the BBC: “There is no evidence that this technique is worth doing... I am very surprised that it was even carried out at this stage. It would certainly not be allowed in Britain.” Additionally, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK’s regulatory agency for reproductive medical activities, said that it would not license the technique because it involved altering the germline.

Fast forward 12 years and the HFEA seems to be promoting just this. Last month, it submitted a report about a public consultation it conducted on mitochondria replacement to the UK Parliament, declaring that it found “broad support” for the techniques even though the majority of those who took part in the largest portion were against the techniques. The UK Department of Health must now decide whether to draft regulations for approval by Parliament, which could allow the procedure to move to human clinical trial.

Despite or perhaps because of the publicity around the current controversy, the old Daily Mail article continues to circulate and lead to commentaries based on the false assumption that this just happened. Just how much confusion has this created? Here are some of the recent re-postings and commentaries based on the 2001 article:
The hosts of the recent Al Jazeera debate ‘The Baby Blueprint’ were understandably confused about the issue when they noted that they had just learned from an article that 30 genetically modified babies were born last year.

Misinformation has been a hallmark of the debate around mitochondria replacement. Adding the accurate date to the Daily Mail article could help alleviate some of the confusion. Hopefully this will be remedied soon.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:




Posted in Assisted Reproduction, Bioethics, Biopolitics, Parties & Pundits, Biotech & Pharma, Eugenics, Genetic Selection, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Jessica Cussins's Blog Posts, Media Coverage, Public Opinion, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights, The United Kingdom, US Federal


Comments

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  1. Comment by Trap, Jun 12th, 2014 7:30am

    Thanks a lot for one’s intriguing write-up. It’s actually exceptional. Searching ahead for this sort of revisions.


  2. Comment by Anti, Apr 25th, 2014 12:25am

    The Daily Mail has a British Fascist pro Nazi pedigree. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Sidney_Harmsworth


  3. Comment by Anti, Apr 23rd, 2014 9:51pm

    Is there any evidence that these procedures were possible much earlier? I postulate this technology was implemented on a covert experimental basis in the early 1980s. I recall reading about the Pentagon employing team of geneticists as early as the late 1980s. More investigative research needs to be done. In the post-Snowden age, good luck trying to crack the classified national security egg on this matter.


  4. Comment by NoahM, Feb 8th, 2014 2:41am

    The FDA could not stop it. Here's a link to a current advertisement for the procedure (cytoplasmic transfer) http://www.donasyon.net/Cytoplasmic_Transfer.html

    A google search reveals many more hits, although the US clinics are bit more reserved in their public claims.


  5. Comment by jmbo, Jul 29th, 2013 2:19pm

    How are the children from this experiment doing now, as they reach their teens?


  6. Comment by Alex Curly, Jul 4th, 2013 6:37am

    Here is a (May 4th 2001) dated article from the BBC on the same topic

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1312708.stm


 


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