WASHINGTON — The provocative notion of genetically modified babies met the very real world of federal regulation Tuesday, as a government advisory committee began debating a new technique that combines DNA from three people to create embryos free of certain inherited diseases.
The two-day meeting of the Food and Drug Administration panel is focused on a procedure that scientists think could help women who carry DNA mutations for conditions such as blindness and epilepsy. The process would let them have children without passing on those defects.
The debate over whether the technique – nicknamed “three-parent IVF” – should be allowed to proceed to human tests underscores how quickly the science of reproductive medicine is evolving. Scientists argue that this technology, like cloning and embryonic stem-cell research, has huge potential to help people. But it is also highly sensitive, touching ethical and political nerves.
The technology involves taking defective mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouses, from a mother’s egg and replacing them with healthy mitochondria from another woman. After being fertilized by the father’s sperm in a lab, the egg would be implanted in the mother, and the pregnancy could progress normally.
The procedure was pioneered by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a researcher at Oregon Health and Science University who focuses on early embryo development and stem-cell biology. He has been able to produce five healthy monkeys using this technique and has proposed testing it in humans.
More than 40 other countries have passed laws or signed treaties banning human genetic modifications that can be inherited. It is a line that governments have been hesitant to cross, but there have been signs recently that such stances may be softening.
A scientific panel in Britain found broad support for such a therapy there, with the caveat that if it is approved, it should be closely monitored and regulated. Parliament is expected to take up the issue this year.