The "three-parent-baby" technique, a controversial fertility procedure currently banned in the United States, might allow people having trouble conceiving to start a family.
The procedure uses genetic material from a donor in addition to that of the couple trying to conceive. This is in an attempt to bypass mitochondrial disorders, which are passed down from mother to child and can cause fatal illnesses in developing babies.
Dr. Kristin Bendikson specializes in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at USC's Fertility Clinic. The clinic treats patients, counseling couples who are trying to conceive, as well as expanding the field of fertility research. Bendikson explained the "three-parent baby" technique in very practical terms.
"Instead of having the mitochondria from the mom that has the genetic mutation that's causing the disease, now you actually have the mitochondria from the donor that's healthy," she said.
Bendikson said reproductive scientists have been eager to work on this type of fertility research for some time, but haven't been able to because of restrictions on research.
"The feasibility of this technology has actually been around for a while," said Bendikson.
Even though the technology's been around for a while, the story of the three-parent baby only goes back five years.
A couple from Jordan had been trying to start a family for about 20 years. After 10 years of marriage, the wife became pregnant, but she miscarried. This would be the first of four miscarriages.
In 2005, the couple gave birth to a baby girl. It was then that they discovered the probable cause of their fertility problems — a genetic mutation in the mother's mitochondria — the energy supplier for living cells. Their daughter was born with Leigh syndrome, which causes defects in the brain, muscles and nerves of developing infants. She died at just 6 years old. The couple's second child had the same disorder, and lived for only eight months.
In 2011, the couple met with Dr. John Zhang, medical director of the New Hope Fertility Center in New York. Working in Mexico, because of the U.S. ban, Zhang used the three-parent fertilization technique to help the couple conceive a healthy child. Combining DNA from the mother, the father and a donor's healthy mitochondria, the mother gave birth to a healthy boy on April 6, 2016 in New York. The child has shown no signs of disease of developmental disorder, said Bendikson.
Some people, however, say that just because advances in medicine allow parents to bear healthy children, it is not their place, nor the place of fertility experts, to interfere with nature.
Daphine Bonner, 68, says she's not surprised at the news of the mitochondrial-donor procedure, and that she remembers studying the topic in school, but she does not agree with it.
"I'm appalled and I feel that they've crossed the line," said Bonner. "I think they're playing God. I'm a Christian."
Gayane Kouyoumdjian, works at the USC Fertility Clinic as a technician. She says the news of the three-parent baby has inspiring implications for others.
"Other people with genetic diseases will be able to have children who are going to be disease free."
Not only is the procedure controversial, currently, it is illegal in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration banned the procedure after two fetuses developed genetic disorders.
Clinical trials are already permitted in the United Kingdom, but the United States has put a hold on such work, writing a rider into the law that states that researchers and medical professionals cannot conduct research on embryos.
An expert panel of doctors, lawyers, bioethicists and historians commissioned by the FDA recommended that the procedure be approved only for clinical investigations to help women who carry certain grave genetic diseases bear children without spreading the disease to the child.[a]
Congress passed a bill last year "banning the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes." An FDA spokesman confirmed that the ban applies to these such instances, so clinical trials wouldn't even be considered till the beginning of the next fiscal year in October.
As the case of the three-parent baby continues to garner more media attention, scientists are hopeful that members of Congress will reconsider their prior stance on the bill.
"I think that the technology is there," said Bendikson. "And clearly, it's worked in this instance — if we can do something that allows a couple to have a healthy baby and we're doing it in an ethical manner, there doesn't seem to be a reason not to do it. What we're hoping is that the news of this healthy baby will actually influence our government and hopefully they can change their mind and allow this type of research to be performed in the United States."
Whether or not the FDA approves the controversial "three-parent baby" procedure for clinical trials in the U.S., the advances in medical science have people excited for opportunities that at one time seemed impossible.