Britain’s first cancer-free designer baby born after being screened for deadly gene
11th January 2009
The first British baby designed to be free of breast cancer has been born into an ethical storm.
She will grow up without a gene which has blighted three generations of her father’s family.
The breakthrough gives hope to other couples who fear to have children because they are in increased danger of killer diseases. But it will reinforce fears of future parents producing ‘designer babies’, choosing the colour of their eyes and hair, and selecting children who will grow up to be top of the class and excel in sport.
The girl was delivered normally after her parents underwent pioneering treatment to screen out embryos which carried the defective BRCA1 gene.
Her parents were said to be ‘delighted’ at the birth of their first child, which they hope will break the chain of cancer misery that has haunted the family.
The 28-year-old father’s sister, mother, aunt and grandmother all suffered from the disease, passed down through the generations.
‘We had been through his sister being ill, so it was something we had seen first hand,’ the mother said.
‘I thought this was something I had to try because, if we had a daughter with this gene, and she was ill, I couldn’t look her in the face and say I didn’t try.’
Any daughter born with the gene has a 50 per cent to 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer. The child was born over the Christmas period to her London-based parents, who have asked not to be identified.
She was created when doctors at University College Hospital used IVF techniques to harvest 11 embryos.
Six of these were found to contain the BRCA1 gene, and were discarded. Three others were discarded for other abnormalities. The remaining two were implanted in the womb, one of which led to pregnancy.
The embryos were not selected according to gender, so it is a coincidence the baby was a girl, doctors said. Even if they had tried to choose a male embryo, this would not have eradicated the cancer gene because a boy could still carry it and pass it on to future generations.
Paul Serhal, medical director of the hospital’s assisted conception unit, said: ‘The baby is healthy and well. This little girl will not face the spectre of developing this genetic form of breast cancer or ovarian cancer in her adult life.’
Pro-life campaigners claim it is morally wrong to weed out imperfect babies. Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said it would be better to find a cure for cancer than eliminating the carriers. ‘People argue it’s better than aborting babies that are carriers or afflicted, but two wrongs don’t make a right.’
She added that in Europe, where the rules are more lax, the technique is already being used to select babies on social grounds.
James Dowson, of the LifeLeague campaign group, said: ‘It’s not slippery slope towards designer babies, it is designer babies. Screening for cancer is an emotive issue – my own father and grandfather both had cancer, so I know – but it is a dangerous road to go down. Today it is cancer, next year it will be IQ, and the year after that blue eyes and blonde hair.’
Tory MP Ann Widdecombe said: ‘A lot of embryos have genes in them that could lead to nothing but them turning into perfectly healthy humans. Once again this shows a worrying precedent that man wants to play God.’
The 27-year-old mother’s treatment, carried out on the NHS, had to be licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which grants permission on a case-by-case basis. It gave the go-ahead after holding a public consultation.
Mr Serhal said: ‘It is the same principle as screening of pregnancies at 12 weeks for conditions such as Down’s Syndrome. Patients feel much more comfortable with the concept of discarding an affected cluster of cells rather than termination of a well-established pregnancy.
‘We only look at families with a strong history of the disease, people who have lost loved ones to cancer. We are looking to prevent someone developing a killer disease, not trivial abnormalities. Choosing an embryo for cosmetic reasons is something that will never be offered in the UK.’
He said that if the couple had produced any other healthy embryos which were free of the cancer gene, they could have been frozen for future implantation.
The technique, known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), has already been used in the UK to free babies of inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease. But breast cancer is different because it does not inevitably affect a child from birth, and might or might not develop later in life. There is also a chance it can be cured, if caught early enough.
Cancer charities offered a cautious welcome to the breakthrough. Some fear that couples with a family history of cancer might feel morally compelled to go down the IVF route.
Dr Sarah Cant, policy manager at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: ‘It is a complex and very personal issue. Women with a family history of breast cancer tell us that what might be right for one person may not be right for another.’
Dr Lesley Walker, of Cancer Research UK, said: ‘This is an exciting step forward in preventing inherited breast cancer but very few people have sufficiently high-risk genes to warrant this sort of intervention.’
Faulty genes are responsible for between five and 10 per cent of the 44,000 cases of breast cancer in the UK each year. BRCA1 and its sister gene BRCA2 are the two most commonly involved. Women with a defective BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are up to seven times more likely to develop breast cancer than those without the mutations.
Stuart Lavery, joint head of the IVF unit at Hammersmith Hospital in West London and spokesman for the British Fertility Society, said doctors in the U.S. had for some years been selecting out embryos carrying the BRCA1 gene.
‘It will become more routine but not necessarily more widespread-because it will be most heavily used by a small group.
‘PGD will not open the floodgates to general embryo screening. It does not involve genetic engineering – this is not a designer baby.’
Mr Lavery said too many couples faced a desperate quest to avoid giving birth to children condemned to illness.
At his own clinic, the first 16 couples applying for PGD had between them 25 terminations of babies diagnosed in the womb with conditions such as adrenal leukodystrophy, a progressive genetic disorder which can be fatal at a young age.
Of the seven children who were born, four had already died and three women were so traumatised they had themselves sterilised before the age of 30.