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Landmark Green Signal for "Designer" Baby

British authorities have given a couple from northern England the go-ahead to use fertility treatment to create a test-tube baby in order to cure their son, who is seriously ill with a rare genetic disorder.


A frozen five-celled seed of a human embryo

Three-year-old Zain Hashmi suffers from a rare and potentially fatal blood disorder, thalassemia. Children with thalassemia cannot make enough haemoglobin, and their bone marrow cannot produce sufficient red blood cells.

He needs a simple bone marrow transplant to cure him, but so far no suitable donor has found who matches Zain's genetic profile. His parents, Shahana and Raj Hashmi from Leeds now hope to use the test tube sibling's blood from his or her umbilical cord to cure Zain.

The decision was made by Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) on Friday after three hours of intense debate.

IVF techniques and stem cells called into play

The go-ahead for the procedure called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis will mark the first time that the HFEA allows the use of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) to select an embryo which is a close genetic match for a sibling in order to treat him.

Using IVF techniques, a cell will be removed from the specially selected embryo and examined to confirm that it is disease-free and a good tissue match. If it is suitable, the embryo will be implanted in the mother's womb.

Once the baby is born, doctors take stem cells from the umbilical cord, which can regenerate bone marrow, and inject these into the sick child.

The Hashmis are expected to start treatment at the Park Hospital's Centre for Assisted Reproduction in Nottinghamshire immediately.

Critics lash out at HFEA's decision

But the going will be anything but easy for the HFEA which already finds itself in the eye of a storm of controversy. The decision is also expected to provoke a fresh debate on the medical and ethical implications of genetic pre-selection.

Critics and campaigners have condemned the ruling on ethical grounds and expressed fears that this the HFEA is taking the dangerous path to "designer" babies.

Opponents ask whether people should be allowed to manufacture a child in order to serve the medical needs of a older brother . They question how far science is allowed to go.

Many are also against the discarding of embryos created during the process that are not suitable.

Baby not a "designer" one says HFEA

But the HFEA stands by its decision and says that it approves applications only after rigorous screening of the ethical and medical implications of the treatment and the welfare of the children.

It does not believe that the recent decision will set a precedent because the treatment will only be approved in very rare circumstances and under strict controls.

The HFEA has also denied that the test-tube baby would be a "designer" one. "The child has not been selected for any characteristics at all", HFEA deputy chair Jane Denton told Reuters.

Only chance to cure Zain

But despite the uproar, the Hashmis and the doctors attending to Zain are jubilant.

Doctors treating Zain point out that his sibling-to-be could provide the only way to save the little boy's life.

Dr Simon Fischel of the Park Clinic says, "This is the one opportunity the Hashmis have in changing the quality of life and perhaps even saving the life of their little boy, Zain, so for them specifically it is very important."

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