The future of human reproduction: Three-parent babies

Kim Hulett wanted to be an astronaut, but instead grew up to  become the pioneering founder and CEO of Next Biosciences, a South African biotech company that aims to combine medicine, science and technology to "create innovative products and services, empowering you to invest in and take personal ownership of your future health."

Next Biosciences provides cutting edge technology and services include Stem Cell Banking, Carrier Screening, Newborn Screening, Paternity Testing, Genetic Counselling much more.

We sat down with her to unpack the mysteries of genetic testing, designer babies and the future of human reproduction.


Follow the series here: The future of human reproduction

"Reproductive genetic tests ensure healthy offspring," Hulett explains, "and a 'designer baby' is any baby that is either specifically selected, or altered through genetic engineering to include or exclude specific genes that allow for specific traits and diseases."

Currently, the existing technology is used to screen for healthy embryos, to avoid children with genetic illnesses. In the future we may well have the option to choose from a 'menu' of desirable traits, Kim told Parent24.

While the ethics and legalities involved are still being debated by scientists all around the world, she revealed, the technology already exists to create three-parent babies. In the near future, the technology could even allow for babies that literally only have one parent, or who come from same sex couples. 

We looked further into one of the incredible techniques being tested internationally: 

Maternal Spindle Nuclear Transfer

This technique is used to prevent babies being born with mitochondrial disease and results in what is known as a three-parent baby.  

According to childrenshospital.org, in mitochondrial disorders, the mitochondria’s ability to do their jobs is impaired because of "a genetic mutation—a 'mistake' in the DNA."

Children and adults affected by this suffer from issues relating to their heart, brain, muscles and gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms include fatigue, hearing loss, seizures, strokes, heart failure, diabetes and kidney failure, and many children with mitochondrial disorders have developmental delay. In all cases, the mother is the carrier of  these inherited mutations.

A pioneering technique is being developed, and has resulted in a handful of healthy babies, called Maternal Spindle Nuclear Transfer.

This involves replacing the mother’s mitochondrial DNA with that of a donor woman. The technique means mothers who carry the mutation can avoid passing on mitochondrial disease to their children.

Traces of genes from the donor mother

The process involves transferring the nucleus from the mother's egg into a donor egg that has had its nucleus removed. This egg is fertilised with father's sperm and implanted in the mother. The baby grows to possess the genetic material from the mother and the father, as well as traces of genes from the donor mother.

The technique has been successfully tested in several countries, resulting in a handful of healthy babies, but earlier this year it was reported that a Greek woman gave birth to a baby boy, using this technique, in the first clinical trial of its kind to treat infertility.

"The boy was born on 9 April, to a 32-year-old woman with a history of multiple IVF failures and poor egg quality," reported the Institute of Life.

The risks are 'not entirely known'

This case was somewhat controversial, and several researchers have expressed concern over the use of the technique as a treatment for infertility, because the technique was not originally developed for this reason. 

According to Tim Child, of the fertility clinic Oxford Fertility, the risks of spindle nuclear transfer are 'not entirely known' but animal experiments have suggested that in the case of a mismatch between the parent's DNAs could cause accelerated ageing and affect metabolism and obesity.

The risks may be considered acceptable if being used to treat mitochondrial disease, he told New Scientist.

Kim Hulett will be speaking at the next SingularityU South Africa summit in Johannesburg on 16 & 17 October 2019.

Tickets are available from singularityusouthafrica.org.

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Follow the series here: The future of human reproduction