Or has it?

The limited information in the news reports is confusing. Most reports, including the initial scoop and the BBC, reported that this was the “first baby”. But one UK broadsheet headline proclaimed “First ‘three-parent’ babies born in Britain”. So was it one baby or more than one?

The source of this and other confusions seems to be that this long-awaited news was not directly announced by the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority), the regulating body. It arose as a result of a “freedom of information” request from The Guardian, the newspaper which first ran the story.

In order to maintain the confidentiality of the infant or infants, the HFEA responded that “less than five” of these babies had been born. This appears to be their standard practice, as I received exactly the same answer when I made an FOI request a year ago. Though it is now clear that one (or more) babies have been born there is still much important information we do not know.

Of particular importance are the age of the baby, its sex and its health (though one would assume they are free from disease to date).

The last point is important to clarify because it has long been known that it is impossible to transfer the nucleus of the egg from the mother with the diseased mitochondria without also transferring some diseased mitochondria with it. These may proliferate in the enucleated donor egg into which the mother’s nucleus is placed before the reconstituted egg is fertilized and the embryo eventually transferred into the mother’s uterus. If this happens the technique may induce the very disease it is intended to prevent.

Furthermore, we don’t even know if this technique (maternal spindle transfer) was the one used in this case. Another technique exists, called pronuclear transfer, involving transfer of genetic material from fertilized eggs.

We also have no indication of how many attempts were made to create viable transferable embryos and how many of those transferred embryos led to unsuccessful pregnancies. This means that we have no indication of how efficient this form of IVF is. Press reports are already suggesting that it could help up to 150 women in the UK a year. However, if only one or two women have been helped to date, such speculation merely increases expectations which cannot as yet be fulfilled.

Unless these infants remain healthy for many years one cannot be sure the technique is safe – a point emphasized at the end of several press reports. This means they should be monitored for many years before they can be assumed to be disease-free.

In 2015, I was interviewed alongside a young mother who was a mitochondrial disease carrier. She was desperate to have a healthy child. Not surprisingly, she found it very difficult to understand my scepticism surrounding all that she appeared to have been promised. I hope for her sake that she is the mother of this child (or children).

But it may be quite a while, I suspect, before we have 150 births a year from the procedure.

Trevor Stammers

Dr Trevor Stammers is a retired general practitioner and Associate Professor of Bioethics and Medical Law. His article is printed with permission