A “remarkable advance in science” for some and an “ethical problem” for others. Can a baby with the DNA of three people be born in Portugal?

Just over a month after the birth of the first baby with DNA from three people in the UK making the rounds, CNN Portugal spoke to Portuguese specialists to find out if the claims have already started to appear here and to understand how doctors look at the theme.

Science, which never ceases to amaze, promises to revolutionize fertilization techniques. After artificial insemination and surrogacy, the latest advance allows a couple to have a child with the DNA of a third person to prevent them from being born with a genetic disease. The technique can already be practiced in the UK under the law. In Portugal, the question is not peaceful and the opinions of specialists are divided.

For some specialists, like the pharmacist Vladimiro Silva, it is very important to adopt this technique in the country, because it allows to conceive a baby with the genes of three people. Believing that it is a “technique with great potential” and a “remarkable scientific advance”, the executive director of the Procriar and Ferticentro clinics assures: “I only see advantages in it”. The specialist justifies the position by evoking the possibility that it offers women to “carry out treatments with their own eggs”, without having to resort to a total donation.

This is a procedure – technically known as mitochondrial donation therapy – which is used to prevent the child from inheriting mitochondrial diseases from the mother. At stake are “rare”, “disabling” and “serious” conditions present in maternal mitochondrial DNA, explains Maria do Céu Patrão Neves, president of the National Ethics Council for Life Sciences (CNECV). Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which can lead to blindness, or Leigh’s syndrome, characterized by a delay and progressive loss of cognitive and motor skills, are, according to Vladimiro Silva, two examples of these diseases.

We use “healthy” mitochondria from a donor, explains Maria do Céu Patrão Neves, but 99.8% of the child’s genetic material continues to come from the “real parents”. According to The Guardian, the baby has only 37 genes from the donor, because the mitochondrial tissue is “only the cellular environment in which the fetus will develop and where the disease of the mother has been”, specifies the president of the CNECV.

But the theme is not peaceful for Maria do Céu Patrão Neves. On the contrary, triple genetic descent, as he calls it, poses an “ethical problem”: “the manipulation of human life in the generational phase and the destruction of embryos”, he asserts. The representative of the CNECV warns of the need to take into account ethical principles such as “human dignity” as well as the “precaution of genetic identity”.

On the side of the patients, the requests have not yet begun to appear in the consultations of Alberto Barros, specifies the doctor of in vitro fertilization, guaranteeing that “the arguments in favor go beyond the questionable nature of the application ” of the treatment if you reach a “level of security” before bringing it to Portugal.

For the moment, the technique is not “solid enough to be done calmly”, considers Alberto Barros, explaining that it still involves “risks”. “By aspirating the nucleus of the oocyte of the woman, we can also aspirate the mitochondria carrying the mutation”, he specifies, stressing that the disease can persist if the treatment is not carried out well. Only after further investigation and appropriate “scientific literature” can regulations be put in place, the expert believes.

Alberto Barros also recalls that, if this were to happen, the law on medically assisted procreation would have to change, since the technique is contrary to some of the principles set out therein, since the legislation punishes “nucleus transfer” with imprisonment, who is responsible for this treatment. Still on the subject of regulations, Maria do Céu Patrão Neves, the president of the CNECV, warns: “If a legislative proposal comes to exist in Portugal, it is necessary to know whether it will comply with and respect the protection of the higher interest of the child and parents”.

In the United Kingdom, legislation was changed in 2015 to authorize the treatment which generates babies with three genetic materials, but it was not until March of this year that the first license appeared, granted by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) at Newcastle Fertility Center – the first and only clinic you can do it with. Quoted by The Guardian, the HFEA specifies that the number of babies with this disease was “less than five”, the first having been announced on May 9, which has been around the world.

There are still cases to register in Mexico, where there are “legal loopholes”, which constitutes a “risk”, estimates Maria do Céu Patrão Neves. It was in fact on Mexican soil that the first baby in the world appeared with the DNA of three people. In 2016, a mother from Jordan who carried mitochondrial mutations that can cause Leigh syndrome had four miscarriages and only two babies survived – one up to six years old and the other just six months old.

Studies show that one in six thousand people suffer from mitochondrial diseases.

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