Bioethics Blogs

It’s a Boy: Ethical Implications of the First Spindle Nuclear Transfer Birth

by Elisabeth Armstrong

On September 27, 2016 people across the world looked down at their buzzing phones to see the AP Alert: “Baby born with DNA from 3 people, first from new technique.” It was an announcement met with confusion by many, but one that polarized the scientific community almost instantly. Some celebrated the birth as an advancement that could help women with a family history of mitochondrial diseases prevent the transmission of the disease to future generations; others held it unethical, citing medical tourism and consequences for the future of the therapy.

The child in question was actually born a few months earlier on April 6, 2016, but the research was published a few months later in the October edition of Fertility and Sterility. The mother carries DNA that could have given the baby Leigh Syndrome, a severe neurological disorder characterized by psychomotor regression that typically results in death between ages two and three.[1] Also known as subacute necrotizing encephalomyelopathy, Leigh Syndrome is caused by genetic mutations in mitochondrial DNA, which causes defective oxidative phosphorylation. Because people with this condition cannot re-form ATP, “demyleniation, gliosis, necrosis, spongiosis, or capillary proliferation”[2] can occur, thereby producing bilateral lesions across the central nervous system.

The 36-year-old mother previously had four miscarriages and successfully birthed two children, both of whom survived less than six years due to the syndrome. For religious reasons, the mother opted for Spindle Nuclear Transfer instead of Pronuclear Transfer,[3] which many religious organizations oppose because it entails the destruction of fertilized eggs.[4]

In Pronuclear Transfer, both the parent and donor egg are fertilized.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.