A Ukrainian doctor is creating genetically modified “three-parent” babies in an effort to give infertile women a chance to bear children who share their genes.
The practice is banned in the U.S. and many other countries and, according to a report by National Public Radio, has not been available to the public until recently.
Dr. Valery Zukin, director of the Nadiya Clinic in Kiev, claims to have genetically altered embryos for four women who have given birth — and for several more who are pregnant.
The patients so far include women from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Israel. The Nadiya Clinic plans to partner with a clinic in New York to market three-parent babies to eligible women from the United States, who can travel to the Ukraine and pay $15,000 for the procedure, according to the NPR report.
But just because they can doesn’t mean they should, say critics.
“It’s irresponsible,” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, tells PEOPLE. “There are a lot of concerns that haven’t been resolved by preclinical or animal work, so this is a kind of human experimentation.”
And even if the procedure is safe, she says, it’s a “dangerous step toward the creation of ‘designer babies,’ ” a term used to describe babies whose physical attributes are predetermined in a laboratory.
“There would be significant social repercussions” to that, says Darnovsky.
The process undertaken at the clinic in Kiev is fairly simple. Doctors create an embryo from the egg and sperm of the couple who want to have a baby. Then they create a second embryo with the father’s sperm and an egg donated by another woman.
They remove most of the DNA from the embryo made from the donated egg and replace those genes with DNA from the couple’s embryo. What’s left of the donated egg is the mitochondrial DNA, which provides energy to the cell. The process is also called mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT).
The embryo that develops into a fetus has the mother’s genetic codes that determine traits such as hair and eye color, the shape of the body and “the things that make up who we are,” says Alan Decherney, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Health, which studied the creation of three-parent babies on behalf of the U.S. government.
Decherney says his panel recommended in 2016 that the Food and Drug Administration approve, with many restrictions, some trials for prospective mothers who have inherited mitochondrial disease, so that they don’t pass a harmful mutation on to their children.
But that same year, Congress quashed the idea, prohibiting public funding for trials that create genetically modified human embryos.
Decherney argues that the procedure should not affect the health of the future children, but that the only way to find out for sure is to try. “The animal studies have been done,” he tells PEOPLE. “The science is good. Of course, there’s never enough. And at some point, as we did with IVF, you just have to move ahead.”
He points to clinical trials in the United Kingdom, where at least two women with mitochondrial disease are pregnant with three-parent embryos. “We’re all watching that very closely,” he says.
Decherney cautions that genetically modifying an embryo is not a proven fertility technique. He said the procedures being done in Ukraine may not work any better than using the prospective mother’s embryo alone.
But Zukin of the Nadiya Clinic is moving ahead with plans to offer MRT more widely.
“Why must it be forbidden?” Zukin asked in the NPR report. “It’s a dream to want to have a genetic connection with a baby.”
Decherney says that while research shows that MRT should be safe for humans, he understands “the slippery slope argument.”
“It’s ethically charged because it’s genetic engineering,” he says. “There’s the worry… Say you don’t like your spouse’s nose, and you want a different nose for your baby… But that’s not what we’re talking about, because the donor has no impact on who the person becomes.”
Darnovsky says the Center for Genetics and Society and other watchdogs are against genetic tinkering because they see it as a Pandora’s box.
“You don’t want to get to a place where we think of one group, or pool of people, as superior, or inferior, based on purported biological differences,” she says. “That’s what racism is. That’s the slippery slope.”
And she advises prospective parents to “be fully informed about the options” before buying a ticket to Kiev for Dr. Zukin’s procedure. There are “many other ways to form a family,” she says, including surrogacy and adoption.