“World's First GM Babies Born”: 12-Year-Old Article Continues to Cause Confusion
An undated Daily Mail article that is actually over a decade old continues to spread misinformation about the current state of human genetic modification. In fact, the operations it describes were shut down by the FDA in 2001, and the specific techniques it refers to have been abandoned.
The article begins with the provocative statement, “The world's first genetically modified humans have been created, it was revealed last night.” There is no date anywhere within it, which has led to a great deal of confusion. Many understandably believe it happened last night given that today’s date shows up at the top of the page.
It is important to set the record straight and understand this history in context. This significant event made headlines when it happened. BBC News coverage of May 4, 2001 is here: Genetically altered babies born, and the CNN coverage of May 5, 2001 is here: World's first genetically altered babies born.
These reports, and the Daily Mail article, discuss up to 30 births that followed a process called ooplasmic transfer. Fifteen of these babies were reportedly born at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science of St Barnabas in New Jersey under the guidance of Professor Jacques Cohen in an attempt to help infertile women have a child. Altering the human germline – something he was aware he was doing and in fact made a point of publicizing – was not of great concern to him.
However, many others were quite concerned. BBC News Online reported,
Altering the germline is something that the vast majority of scientists deem unethical given the limitations of our knowledge.
It is illegal to do so in many countries and…
The [US Government Recombinant DNA Advisory] Committee said that in no circumstances would it consider any request for government funds that would result in modification of the human germline.
In June 2001 the FDA communicated with the fertility clinics that were attempting ooplasmic transfer and told them to stop, indicating that such protocols would have to be undertaken under Investigational New Drug exemptions. The FDA letters cited concerns regarding the genetic abnormalities found in resulting children (including Turner’s syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder), the lack of oversight, the paucity of safety data, and the resulting permanent changes to the human genome.
Understanding this history is particularly important right now as the UK contemplates granting the world’s first regulatory approval for a variation of these techniques, mitochondria replacement, which would also modify the human germline. Biopolitical Times (1, 2, 3) and many others (1, 2, 3) have pointed out that mitochondria replacement is unneeded to prevent future children affected by mitochondria disease , would be extraordinarily risky for any resulting children, and would violate widespread legal prohibitions and a globally observed understanding against human germline engineering.
Back in 2001 no one would have guessed that the UK would be the country to go against the worldwide consensus against such human experimentation. Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, told the BBC: “There is no evidence that this technique is worth doing... I am very surprised that it was even carried out at this stage. It would certainly not be allowed in Britain.” Additionally, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK’s regulatory agency for reproductive medical activities, said that it would not license the technique because it involved altering the germline.
Fast forward 12 years and the HFEA seems to be promoting just this. Last month, it submitted a report about a public consultation it conducted on mitochondria replacement to the UK Parliament, declaring that it found “broad support” for the techniques even though the majority of those who took part in the largest portion were against the techniques. The UK Department of Health must now decide whether to draft regulations for approval by Parliament, which could allow the procedure to move to human clinical trial.
Despite or perhaps because of the publicity around the current controversy, the old Daily Mail article continues to circulate and lead to commentaries based on the false assumption that this just happened. Just how much confusion has this created? Here are some of the recent re-postings and commentaries based on the 2001 article:
- April 14, 2013, Daily Unconstitutional: Worlds First Genetically Modified Babies Born
The creepiest news of the day goes to this article from the Daily Mail.
- March 23, 2013, The Christian Post: Now a Reality, Should Genetically Modified Babies Be Prohibited?
- March 11, 2013, Four Winds: World’s First Genetically Modified Babies ‘Created’ in US
In a developing story, the Daily Mail is now reporting that the very first (admitted) group of genetically modified babies have been ‘created’ in the United States. The scientists involved reportedly announced the result on the night of June 27th.
- March 10, 2013, Conscious Life News: World’s First Genetically Engineered Babies Born (repost of the original Daily Mail article with this date on it.)
- Mar 9, 2013, Official Tea Party USA: World's First Genetically Modified Babies Born - Official Tea Party USA
- January 7, 2013, Daily Paul: World's First Genetically Modified BABIES Born (repost of the original Daily Mail article with this date on it.)
- July 06, 2012, Indian Country Today Media Network: Birth of 30 Genetically Modified Babies May Lead to a 'Designer' Human Race
The recent birth of 30 genetically modified (GM) babies has sparked an ethical debate over whether fertility experiments help hopeful parents conceive or if scientists are altering humanity.
- Jul 3, 2012, Natural News: U.S. researchers create 30 genetically modified human babies
The hosts of the recent Al Jazeera debate ‘The Baby Blueprint’ were understandably confused about the issue when they noted that they had just learned from an article that 30 genetically modified babies were born last year.
Misinformation has been a hallmark of the debate around mitochondria replacement. Adding the accurate date to the Daily Mail article could help alleviate some of the confusion. Hopefully this will be remedied soon.
Previously on Biopolitical Times: