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U.K. Lawmakers Allow Scientists To Attempt 'DNA Transplants'


The U.K. is on its way to become the first country to allow a procedure that uses genes from three adults to create babies. Lawmakers approved regulations allowing the procedure today, but it's been the subject of intense debate. The process is aimed at trying to help women have healthy children. NPR's Rob Stein has been following this story, and, Rob, begin by telling us why exactly scientists want the go-ahead to do this.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: You know, every single one of our cells have structures inside of them known as mitochondria. And these are like the batteries inside your cellphone. They provide all the energy that cells need to function. And each of these mitochondria have their own set of genes. And if there are defects in these genes they can cause diseases known as mitochondrial diseases. And these can be pretty terrible diseases. Babies can die within the first few days or weeks of being born. And if they survive they can go on to have terrible complications that leave them disabled or they end up dying prematurely, and these diseases can occur generation after generation in certain families.

CORNISH: Now, this procedure is aimed at preventing those conditions. Explain exactly how it works.

STEIN: Yeah, so mitochondria are only passed down from women to their babies through their eggs. So the idea is to fix the defective DNA in these eggs in the women in these families. And here's what they do - they take healthy mitochondrial DNA from eggs donated by women without these diseases and they use that to replace the defective DNA in the eggs of women in these families. And the idea is that the resulting embryo would have the regular DNA of the woman trying to have the healthy baby, the regular DNA from her male partner and the healthy DNA from the woman who donated her egg.

CORNISH: And this has raised a lot of ethical questions, right? I mean, describe some of the big ones.

STEIN: Yeah, well, one of them is what I just said - that any babies born this way would have DNA from three different people. And another big controversy about this is it would be doing something that's never been done before. It's been considered taboo in science, which is making changes in human DNA that would be passed down for generations, and there are lots of concerns about that. The first one is scientists could make a mistake. They could introduce some new disease that then would become a permanent part of the human genetic blueprint. Another concern is that this could be sort of a slippery slope towards designer babies, where people could use similar techniques to make changes, to pick the traits of their children, like how smart they are or how tall they are, whether they're good athletes - that sort of thing.

CORNISH: Now, how much of this came up before the vote today in the British House of Commons?

STEIN: All these issues came up and it got pretty emotional. So let's hear a bit of the debate.


THEONA BRUCE: Once the gene is out of the bottle there will be no going back for society.

FRANK DOBSON: But the thing to remember is mitochondrial disease is horrible. There is...

ROBERT FLELLO: And if this was genetically modified crops, we'd be all up in arms. That's was happening here.

STEIN: Yeah, so as you can hear, it got pretty intense. And those were members of Parliament - Robert Flello, Frank Dobson and Theona Bruce. And in the end, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to let this go ahead - 382 in favor, 128 against.

CORNISH: What happens next?

STEIN: Well, it still has to be approved by the House of Lords, but most people think it will. This fall I visited some of the scientists at Newcastle University who want to do this, to see how it's actually done in the lab, and they say as soon as they got the greenlight they're going to go ahead and try this. So that could happen as early as sometime later this year, so the first baby could be born this way early next year.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, there are scientists in the U.S. who want to try something similar, right?

STEIN: Right, at least two groups of U.S. scientists want to try this. And the Food and Drug Administration had an expert panel take a look at this not too long ago, and they raised some serious safety concerns about this. And subsequent to that the Food and Drug Administration asked the National Academy of Sciences to take a look at some of these ethical issues and they just got started on that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Rob Stein on the vote today the U.K. to allow babies to be created using genes from three people. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: Oh, sure, nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.