The world’s first child has been born using a revolutionary technique that combines the genes of three parents. Like all humans, five-month-old Abrahim Hassan carries DNA from both his parents. But he also has a tiny piece of genetic code from a donor.
It means he has avoided inheriting a genetic condition from his Jordanian mother, Ibtisam Shaban, that could kill him. The controversial technique has only been legally approved in the UK.
However, the first baby was engineered by a US medical team who treated Shaban and her husband Mahmoud Hassan in Mexico, where there are no laws to block the procedure. And embryologists believe this birth should fast-forward progress around the world, offering hope to millions who face the prospect of delivering terminally ill children.
‘This is a milestone technique,’ Dr John Zhang, who led the medical team from New York City’s New Hope Fertility Center, told Daily Mail Online. ‘It proves for the first time that genetic information from three people can avoid disease,’ he said.
‘We now know reconstitution of human eggs can produce a healthy baby.’No other technique has been established.’Dr Zhang is not naming the baby or the parents. However, he revealed some details about the family’s devastating journey to reach this world-first.
The parents have already lost two children to the same condition – Leigh’s syndrome – their first at the age of six; their second at eight months. Leigh’s syndrome is a severe neurological disorder which attacks the nervous system.
It gradually inhibits a child’s mental and physical abilities from the moment they are born. Sufferers typically die by the age of three due to lung failure. Tests revealed that, in this case, the boy’s mother carries genes for the disease in her mitochondria.
Mothers pass down a melting pot of DNA. The majority is ‘nuclear DNA’ passed down in each cell’s nucleus.
But 37 maternal genes are passed to the child in each cell’s mitochondria – the cell’s ‘battery’. Father’s never (or at least barely ever) pass down mitochondria. Mitochondria carry just 37 genes. In this case, one in four of the mother’s mitochondria have the mutation that causes Leigh’s syndrome.
Devastated by the loss of their two children, the couple flew to America to meet with Dr Zhang at New Hope, a facility which focuses on training in new innovations. With strict regulations in the United States, the team sought the nearest country without legislation to block them. That was Mexico.
The boy was born through a technique called spindle nuclear transfer. Dr Zhang removed the nucleus from one of his mother’s eggs. It was then inserted in a donor egg that had its nucleus removed.
This egg was then fertilised with sperm from Abrahim’s father. Five eggs were created with this technique, only one of which survived. The findings will be showcased at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s Scientific Congress in Salt Lake City next month.
The technique was carried out in Mexico because it would not be approved in the US by regulators. Echoing both the fears and excitement of the entire medical community, Dr Zhang pointed out: ‘This is just the start. ‘For now, embryologists are focusing on the technique as a way to avoid hereditary diseases that prevent many adults with genetic mutations from having children.
Down the line, however, Dr Zhang said its application could be ‘unlimited’, even to the point of altering an unborn child’s DNA to edit their appearance or skill set. ‘It’s all possible. It just depends how you use the technique.
‘This technique is a new platform. How far it can go, I really cannot imagine. But it’s totally possible to accomplish [cosmetic editing].
‘As with any development of new techniques, you always need to bear in mind efficacy and safety. Even with IVF.’ Professor Simon Fishel, Founder and President, CARE Fertility Group, and Professor of Human Reproduction, said: ‘This is a devastating disease that we do not wish children to be born with, and what’s more, we would wish to eradicate from any family lineage – and this technology will help achieve this.
‘However, any first-time medical procedure moving from successful animal studies to the human, that will take several years until we understand its impact, is a necessary experimental step forward, which we hope and believe should be totally safe and utterly effective.
‘Congratulations to this team and all those hoping to help these unfortunate families; and we should proceed with caution and due regulation.’ While Dusko Ilic said the breakthrough was important, he said ‘some questions remain’.
He said: ‘Was this the first time ever they performed the technique or there were other attempts and they are reporting this one because it was successful?
‘This and other important questions remain unanswered because this work has not been published and the rest of the scientific community has been unable to examine it in detail. It’s vital that that happens soon.
‘So it appears to be a good end result. But it risks encouraging others to follow the example, as we saw with ‘stem cell tourism’. ‘That could be dangerous as understandably impatient people pursue treatment in the very places where regulation is the least strict.’