I recently traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, to gain unusual access to a private fertility clinic. I am the first foreign journalist to see a demonstration of how scientists create "three-parent" babies — a procedure prohibited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s the only known clinic to help infertile women bear children using three parents’ DNA. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/06/615909572/inside-the-ukrainian-clinic-making-3-parent-babies-for-women-who-are-infertile

I’m also the first journalist to interview any mother of any “three-parent” child – the mother of a 15-month-old boy who is one of the four children who has been produced using DNA from three different people by the clinic. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/06/616334508/her-son-is-one-of-the-few-children-to-have-3-parents

I’ve covered health and medicine for over 30 years. I track genetics, stem cells, cancer research, and other science and medical policy news. https://www.npr.org/people/146944972/rob-stein

Proof: https://twitter.com/NPR/status/1006643553890529280

https://twitter.com/robsteinnews/status/1006628123180437504

*Edit* I'm signing off, but thanks for a great AMA, Reddit!

Comments: 53 • Responses: 20  • Date: 

Rasimov15 karma

What possible concerns would one have for combining the DNA of three people?

npr19 karma

Thanks for the question! The big concern is whether this is safe. The procedures being used to do this are very new and untested. So the major worry is about the future health of children created this way. So far the handful of children born this way appear to be healthy. But they're all very young. And any problems may not show up for month or years. That's one reason why British authorities are requiring scientists there to go very slowly and carefully and only do this with very strict oversight.

queenofthenerds11 karma

Hi Rob! Do you think this kind of procedure is short sighted -- finding a solution for the instance of infertility in the mother, but possibly creating new genetic disorders in the descendants?

npr13 karma

That is the major criticism at the moment -- that it's far too early to be doing this procedure to try to treat infertility. The procedure was created for another purpose -- to help women carrying often devastating genetic diseases known as mitochondrial disorders have healthy children. Many scientists and bioethicists say it's acceptable to try this procedure for that purpose because it could prevent serious medical problems. So the British government recently gave scientists the green light to try it for that reason. But even then scientists are only being allowed to do it one baby at a time under a very tightly regulated research program.

Spursious_Caeser7 karma

In your opinion, how close to the movie "Gattaca" is this development likely to bring us?

Edit: spelling

npr12 karma

So this is no where near that scenario. That film was about using genetic engineering to create supposedly genetically superior people. But, that said, one of the big concerns about this is that it is making changes in DNA in a way that could be passed down for to future generations. That's because the DNA from the third person -- the mitochondrial DNA -- can be passed down to any offspring by any girls born this way. So the concern is that by letting scientists do this, it might open the door to making inheritable genetic changes for other reasons, such as to create "designer babies." And so in that way could the beginning of a slippery slope towards a Gattaca-like future.

funny_bunny_mel6 karma

Hi, Rob. I am curious about the veracity of the story. Were any independent lab / dna tests performed to confirm that any of the 4 children reported to have the dna of 3 parents actually have the dna of 3 parents? Why fertilize the mitochondrial donor’s egg with the father’s sperm? It’s a very long path from watching a lab tech vacuum the contents of one cell and replace them with the contents of another cell to the point of having a viable zygote, let alone baby. Considering that all of the lab work is a black box of mystery to the client, do you have any concern that the successful pregnancies are just standard IVF using the donor egg/dna and father’s sperm? How would the clients know the difference?

npr5 karma

Great question! When I was at the clinic, the scientists there said they were awaiting the results of testing from an independent lab in Germany. And many of the outside scientists I talked to about this are very much interested in seeing that data. The Kiev team is planning to present their latest results at an international meeting in Barcelona in July. They may have some of the results from the independent testing by then.

Titaniameta6 karma

Hello Rob, In your extensive experience reporting on those particular fields where do you see those particular fields in let's say 10 years?

npr9 karma

So the hottest thing happening in genetics right now is CRISPR -- the new gene-editing technique that makes it much easier to make changes in DNA. There's so much happening right now with CRISPR it's hard to keep up. I've been spending a good chunk of my reporting time lately doing nothing but CRISPR stories. Now, it's important to make it clear that none of the scientists involved in these so-called "three-parent" baby are using CRISPR. But there are some concerns that these technologies may kind of converge somehow at some point.

jennfarrington5 karma

What legal difficulties does this pose for the children? Birth certificates, inheritances, custody battles, etc... I'm sure there are contracts signed much like adoption papers waiving/accepting rights/responsibilities for the child?

npr13 karma

So far that has not been an issue. It's important to note that the overwhelming majority of DNA that these kids have is from the couple trying to have children. It's all the DNA that most people think about when they think about our genetic inheritance -- the DNA responsible for things like our appearance and personality. The only DNA these kids have from the third person is the "mitochondrial DNA" and that's just 37 genes. That DNA carries the instructions for structures in cells known as mitochondria, which provides the energy for the eggs and embryos.

TJSun5 karma

Hi Rob. I recently developed an interest in a career in radio, but have no radio experience (especially in producing/editing audio). Can you give any advice on how to put my foot through the door? I'm aware of NPR's internship program but I graduated in June 2017 (and I think you can only apply for NPR internships within a year after graduation).

Thank you!

npr6 karma

Well, I'm sitting here with one of NPR's fantastic interns. I couldn't be doing this without her. Our internship program is a great way to get a foot in the door here. And that's true at most news organizations. So you might check out some of the other programs if you're no longer eligible. And you would be eligible for NPR's if you end up going to graduate school. You can find more information here https://www.npr.org/about-npr/181881227/want-to-be-an-npr-intern or reach out to the interns on their Twitter @NPRinterns.

thatsnepallfolks3 karma

Is Tamara's 15 month old baby the oldest of the four produced through Nadiya Cliinic?

What sort of issues are they concerned about being passed down through the mitochondria in girls that are born through this procedure?

npr3 karma

Tamara’s son was the second baby produced by the clinic. The first was a girl. Hopefully she’ll remain healthy and won’t pass any health problems to any kids she may have some day. But the symptoms of mitochondrial disorders sometimes don’t show up for years. And she will pass her mitochondrial DNA down to any kids she has.

dude_who_could3 karma

Is anyone using gene editing to alter other organisms to our benefit? For example, altering anything we eat to be more nutritious or more likely, cheaper to grow.

Also, I had a thought the other day that it would be interesting if someone tried editing the beneficial bacteria in our bodies to be even better for us. Anyone working on that?

npr1 karma

There’s a huge amount of research going on trying to use gene editing of other organisms for the benefit of humanity.

For example, scientists are editing the genes of mosquitoes to try to wipe our diseases like malaria. And gen-editing is being used widely to create more nutritious crops and livestock that can be raised in more environmentally friendly ways. And, yes, scientists are trying to modify bacteria that naturally reside in our bodies to improve our health.

dude_who_could2 karma

So far what I see is a bunch of work that involves augmenting existing dna bits or strands in piece wise ways.

Has anyone started to make a ‘template’ so to speak? Making a human genome that has no known dominant or recessive genetic disorders.

npr3 karma

I’m not aware of something as ambitious as that yet. The closest is probably the “Genome Project-Write” project. The ultimate goal is to “write” a complete human genome from scratch. Here’s the website: http://engineeringbiologycenter.org/

Parzival13372 karma

I don't really know much about this, what exactly is a "3 parent baby" and how dies it work?

npr2 karma

Scientists fertilize an egg from the woman trying to have a baby with her partner’s sperm. Then they use the same man’s sperm to fertilize an egg from another woman paid for her eggs. Next they remove most of the DNA from both fertilized eggs. Finally, they put the DNA from the couple trying to have a baby into the other woman’s mostly empty egg. The resulting embryo and baby mostly has the genes of the couple trying to have a child, but also has 37 genes leftover from the other woman. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/06/615909572/inside-the-ukrainian-clinic-making-3-parent-babies-for-women-who-are-infertile

jio2cold2 karma

Me and my wife are keeping a open mind how much would something like this cost??

npr2 karma

The clinic is charging patients from outside Ukraine about $15,000.

voyeur3242 karma

How did you learn to speak Ukranian/Russian? If you don't, what is your experience using interpreters in the former USSR?

npr1 karma

I worked with a Ukrainian journalist. She speaks both Russian and Ukrainian, which is common in Ukraine. The mother of child I interviewed spoke Russian.

mcgarlic912 karma

In relation to ethical concerns, this being a private clinic and in Ukraine, what measures are taken at the clinic to ensure this process is not discriminatory?

Thanks in advance.

npr3 karma

Great question. This raises a lot of ethical questions. Are the patients being fully informed about how experimental this procedure is? Are the women being paid to provide the eggs fully informed? What about any kids born this way? And since this procedure is expensive, who can afford it?

Pokerdude020522 karma

What is the DNA distribution for these three-parent babies?

npr2 karma

The overwhelming majority of DNA comes from the woman and man trying to have a baby – at least 20,000 genes. The babies only end up with 37 genes from the woman who provides the egg.

Pokerdude020522 karma

Very cool! I’m actually helping replicate CMV Zsgreen DNA at a research lab atm

npr2 karma

Sounds like fascinating research!

PhinestintheNation192 karma

Hey Rob!

What were the actual facilities like, any observations on the clinics themselves?

Also you able to get any detail on how the actual process works? Layman’s terms much appreciated...

Thanks!

npr3 karma

The clinic is very modern and well-equipped. The clinic scientists seem very knowledgeable and professional. The procedure works like this: Scientists fertilize an egg from the woman trying to have a baby with her partner’s sperm. Then they use the same man’s sperm to fertilize an egg from another woman paid for her eggs. Next they remove most of the DNA from both fertilized eggs. Finally, they put the DNA from the couple trying to have a baby into the other woman’s mostly empty egg. The resulting embryo and baby mostly has the genes of the couple trying to have a child, but also has 37 genes leftover from the other woman.

Luke_Skyjogger2 karma

I have two questions. First, I think it is fair to say the internet is full of hyperbolized stories of science breakthroughs. I know you've been covering this a long time, so do you think this is a newer phenomenon or have stories of medical advancements always been sensationalist? Second, do you have any advice for people in science/medicine to approach "translating" primary research into consumable and understandable information for patients?

npr5 karma

There's always been some sensationalized coverage of science. But it's definitely gotten a lot more intense with the advent of the internet. There are lot more outlets putting out stories, and many of those stories are poorly reported or misleading. Plus the coverage of science generally has gotten a lot faster. Scientific journals, for example, used to hold things much longer under strict embargoes. The embargo system is still in place. But journals tends to release research much more quickly, sometimes giving journalists less time to report and evaluate the science.

GeneralKosmosa1 karma

Hello, I have to say as a ukrainian I was surprised that such technology is viable not only in general, but in Ukraine in particular. What are the benefits or practical applications of having basically 3 parents? What are the legal terms the parents would have for raising this child? Are all 3 of them counts as a legal parents?

npr2 karma

The idea is that the small bit of DNA leftover in the egg from the other woman may enable the embryo to develop normally. So far there have been no legal issues have been raised about parentage, and it’s unlikely there will be. The overwhelming majority of DNA comes from the couple trying to have a baby.

Gildolen1 karma

How do they make these three-parent babies?

npr2 karma

Here's how the procedure works: Scientists fertilize an egg from the woman trying to have a baby with her partner’s sperm. Then they use the same man’s sperm to fertilize an egg from another woman paid for her eggs. Next they remove most of the DNA from both fertilized eggs. Finally, they put the DNA from the couple trying to have a baby into the other woman’s mostly empty egg. The resulting embryo and baby mostly has the genes of the couple trying to have a child, but also has 37 genes leftover from the other woman.